Children who attend regular music lessons growing up may experience slower brain aging and faster cognition as adults, even if they decide to abandon the instrument over the course of their lives, a new study finds.
Adults who hadn’t picked up an instrument in over 40 years participated in a study led by Northwestern University professor and expert in speech and music perception, Dr. Nina Kraus, to help researchers understand the effects of music on a developing brain later on in life.
Aged between 55 and 76, the 44 healthy adults all listened to a synthesized speech syllable — “da” — and had their brains’ electrical activity recorded and tracked for time. The quicker response rates of former adolescent musicians over non-players suggested to researchers an explanation why some people’s brains age faster than others.
"This study suggests the importance of music education for children today and for healthy aging decades from now," Kraus said in a statement. "The fact that musical training in childhood affected the timing of the response to speech in older adults in our study is especially telling because neural timing is the first to go in the aging adult.”
Mental illness, as a product of cognitive decline, is still a mystery for scientists. There are a number of markers that doctors and other medical professionals can check for, but the mechanisms behind the slide into, say, Alzheimer’s disease, are still largely puzzling.
The prevailing theory implicates beta amyloid plaques as the main culprit. These plaques build up over time and effectively clog the neural pathways, preventing neurons from communicating with one another and disrupting brain function. One recent study argues this is the principal reason we sleep, so that our brains can flush out the sensory waste like garbage trucks. A similar, but unrelated study found less sleep linked to Alzheimer’s.
Unfortunately, the buildup of amyloid plaques can only be observed. The actual reason beta amyloid plaques accumulate, and not some other thing, isn’t tied down. Like much of the brain’s inner workings, the mechanism isn’t clear. The present study shows cognitive response times in former youth musicians are a millisecond faster than those who’ve never played. This may seem inconsequential, the researchers noted, but the importance of one millisecond is magnified over millions of neurons.
“The brain is very sensitive to timing and a millisecond compounded over millions of neurons can make a real difference in the lives of older adults," explained Michael Kilgard, Ph.D., University of Texas at Dallas sound researcher, who was not involved in this study. "These findings confirm that the investments that we make in our brains early in life continue to pay dividends years later.”
The upside, as Kraus sees it, is that neural plasticity isn’t confined to childhood. While the brain is admittedly more malleable when you’re younger, picking up an instrument as an adult can have profound effects in keeping someone mentally youthful.
“The adult brain retains a profound potential to change, and we and others have seen it happen through computer based training and other therapies,” she said. “Empirically, it's an open question how music lessons initiated or resumed late in life improve neural function, but I have every reason to believe that they do.”