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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Musical Training Shapes Brain Development" reports medical study

Commentary from Lutz Jäncke (Thanks to Dr. Ellen Taliaferro for sharing this study with me)

This study supports my own interpretation of the brain's capability for experience-dependent influences on brain anatomy and function. In concrete, this study demonstrates that 6-year-old children receiving instrumental musical training for 15 months not only learned to play their musical instrument but also 
showed changed anatomical features in brain areas known to be involved in the control of playing a musical instrument. This is the first longitudinal study demonstrating brain plasticity in children in the context of learning to play a musical instrument. 
One of the major questions in cognitive neuroscience is whether the human brain can be shaped by experience. 

In order to examine use-dependent plasticity of the human brain, mostly cross-sectional studies are undertaken comparing subjects with specific skills with appropriate control groups. A classical approach is to compare highly 
skilled musicians, sportsmen, or subjects with other exceptional skills (e.g. synesthesia) with control subjects using neuroanatomical and neurophysiological measures (please see refs [1] and [2], on which I am an author, and refs [3,4]). Using this approach, several anatomical differences have been identified which can be attributed to the specific training influences these particular subjects have experienced. However, although these cross- sectional studies have uncovered several important findings, cross-sectional approaches are not valid enough to 
attribute the discovered between-group differences entirely to different learning influences. The only experimental approach which is suitable to more validly identify experience-dependent influences in humans is the longitudinal experimental approach. Using this approach, the authors of this paper have examined 31 children (with a mean age of 6 years) during the course of a 15-month period. Fifteen of these kids received musical instrument training (a weekly half-hour training outside the school system) while the 16 remaining kids did not attend these classes. However, all kids received the regular music lessons in their school, including playing with drums and bells. Thus, the 15 kids receiving keyboard lessons only differed in this particular feature. It turned out that these kids showed increased brain volumes in several brain areas after 15 months. Most of these brain areas are part of the cortical motor system. There were also structural changes in the auditory system.

Taken together, this study is the first longitudinal study in children demonstrating structural changes in children receiving instrumental musical training. Thus, this study sheds new light on the plasticity of the human brain. Faculty of 1000 Medicine: Evaluations, Dissents and Author responses for: [Hyde KL et al. Musical training shapes structural brain development.

J Neurosci 2009 Mar 11 29 (10) :3019-25] 2009 Apr 1. 


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