Why Musical Training May Be Good for Kids’ Brain Development

Musical training may improve mechanisms associated with cognitive flexibility.

Posted Oct 08, 2020

Musically trained children tend to display neural dynamics associated with better executive functions and more robust cognitive flexibility; these brain advantages could last a lifetime, new fMRI-based research (Kausel et al., 2020) suggests. The paper "Neural Dynamics of Improved Bimodal Attention and Working Memory in Musically Trained Children" was published on October 8 in the open-access journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

For this study, an international team of neuroscientists from Harvard Medical School and the Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD), along with scientists from other academic institutions in Chile, set out to investigate how musical training affects neuroplasticity and executive functions in girls and boys aged 10-13 using fMRI brain scans.

The first author of this study, Leoni Kausel, is a violinist and neuroscientist at UDD's Center for Research in Social Complexity and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

The cohort of musically trained Chilean children (N =20) had played an instrument regularly for at least two years and practiced for at least two hours per week; they also played a musical instrument regularly in an ensemble or orchestra. The control group of 20 non-musically trained children was recruited from Santiago's public schools. These "non-musicians" may have played some instruments as part of a school's curriculum but didn't have any specialized musical training.

Kausel and coauthors, no usage restrictions with credit to Kausel et al./EurekAlert
Source: Kausel and coauthors, no usage restrictions with credit to Kausel et al./EurekAlert

Compared to an age-matched control group of non-musicians, the musically trained children showed higher activation of cognitive control regions such as the frontoparietal control network during bimodal (auditory and visual) tasks designed to test single-focused and divided attention as well as working memory. Musically trained kids also showed higher activation in domain-specific neural networks responsible for auditory encoding, such as the left hemisphere's inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and the left supramarginal gyrus (SMG).

The neural dynamics associated with attention and working memory are interconnected; paying attention to specific information in the present moment makes it easier to remember something at a later date. Also, having better bimodal (auditory/visual) attention capacity and the ability to switch your focus from one task to another requires cognitive flexibility. Therefore, this research suggests that musical training may improve the brain mechanisms associated with cognitive flexibility. As the authors explain:

"Greater cognitive flexibility is associated with favorable outcomes throughout [the] lifespan, such as higher resilience, improved reading abilities in childhood, higher creativity, and a better quality of life (Dajani and Uddin, 2015). These skills, used every day to interact with our world (Hinton et al., 2012), develop during childhood and adolescence and can be improved by training (Diamond, 2013)."

Kausen et al., (2020) speculate that "musical training improves the allocation of attentional resources by increasing the functioning of the frontoparietal control network and facilitating the encoding of auditory stimuli" in ways that boost performance on bimodal (auditory/visual) attention and working memory tasks.  

"Our most important finding is that two different mechanisms seem to underlie the better performance of musically trained children in the attention and working memory task," Kausel said in a news release. "One that supports more domain-general attention mechanisms and another that supports more domain-specific auditory encoding mechanisms."

Based on their findings, Kausel et al. conclude that "musical training could be used as a non-pharmacological intervention strategy for children with attentional problems in order to improve their overall functioning in daily life" and that these findings may be relevant to educational policymakers when deciding to fund or defund musical training programs in public schools. 

Image via EurekAlert

References

Leonie Kausel, Francisco Zamorano, Pablo Billeke, Mary E. Sutherland, Josefina Larrain-Valenzuela, Ximena Stecher, Gottfried Schlaug and Francisco Aboitiz. "Neural Dynamics of Improved Bimodal Attention and Working Memory in Musically Trained Children." Frontiers in Neuroscience (First published: October 08, 2020) DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2020.554731