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Musical training found to change brain anatomy, function

Nov. 13, 2013
Courtesy of the Society for Neuroscience
and World Science staff

Thor­ough mu­si­cal train­ing af­fects the struc­ture and func­tion of dif­fer­ent brain re­gions, and does so more pro­found­ly than pre­vi­ously thought, ac­cord­ing to new stud­ies.

The find­ings sug­gest that the train­ing in­flu­ences how those re­gions com­mu­ni­cate dur­ing the crea­t­ion of mu­sic, and how the brain in­ter­prets and in­te­grates sen­so­ry in­forma­t­ion. The re­sults, from three re­search groups, were pre­sented at the an­nu­al meet­ing of the So­ci­e­ty for Neu­ro­sci­ence in San Die­go this week.

Re­search­ers found that mu­sicians have an en­hanced abil­ity to in­te­grate in­forma­t­ion from hear­ing, tou­ch, and sight. Start­ing train­ing be­fore the age of sev­en has the great­est im­pact, ac­cord­ing to a sep­a­rate stu­dy. A third found that sys­tem­at­ic train­ing shapes brain cir­cuits in­volved in mu­si­cal im­pro­visa­t­ion, lead­ing to less re­li­ance on work­ing mem­o­ry and more ex­ten­sive con­nec­ti­vity with­in the brain.

Some of the brain changes that oc­cur with mu­si­cal train­ing re­flect the au­toma­t­ion of tasks—much as one would re­cite a mul­ti­plica­t­ion ta­ble—and the ac­qui­si­tion of very spe­cif­ic sen­so­ri­mo­tor and cog­ni­tive skills re­quired for mu­sic, sci­en­tists said.

“Play­ing a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment is a mul­ti-sen­so­ry and mo­tor ex­pe­ri­ence that cre­ates emo­tions and mo­tion­s—from fin­ger tap­ping to danc­ing—and en­gages pleas­ure and re­ward sys­tems in the brain. It has the po­ten­tial to change brain func­tion and struc­ture when done over a long pe­ri­od,” said Gott­fried Schlaug of Har­vard Med­i­cal School and Beth Is­ra­el Dea­con­ess Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Cam­bridge, Mass., who mod­er­ated a press con­fer­ence on the find­ings Nov. 12.

“As to­day’s find­ings show, in­tense mu­si­cal train­ing gen­er­ates new pro­cesses with­in the brain, at dif­fer­ent stages of life, and with a range of im­pacts on cre­ati­vity, cog­ni­tion, and learn­ing,” added Schlaug, an ex­pert on mu­sic, brain imag­ing and brain plas­ti­city, or change­abil­ity.


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Thorough musical training affects the structure and function of different brain regions, and does so more extensively than previously thought, according to new studies. The findings suggest that the training influences how those regions communicate during the creation of music, and how the brain interprets and integrates sensory information. The findings, from three research groups, were presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego this week. Researchers found that musicians have an enhanced ability to integrate information from hearing, touch, and sight. Starting training before the age of seven has the greatest impact, according to a separate study. A third found that systematic training shapes brain circuits involved in musical improvisation, leading to less reliance on working memory and more extensive connectivity within the brain. Some of the brain changes that occur with musical training reflect the automation of tasks, much as one would recite a multiplication table, and the acquisition of highly specific sensorimotor and cognitive skills required for music, scientists said. “Playing a musical instrument is a multisensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions — from finger tapping to dancing — and engages pleasure and reward systems in the brain. It has the potential to change brain function and structure when done over a long period,” said Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Cambridge, Mass., who moderated a press conference on the findings Nov. 12. “As today’s findings show, intense musical training generates new processes within the brain, at different stages of life, and with a range of impacts on creativity, cognition, and learning,” added Schlaug, an expert on music, neuroimaging and brain plasticity, or changeability.