Musical Learning

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A new study throws some light on how musical aptitude can offset one very specific aspect of the aging process.

The question of Why Those Young Men Always Sound So Angry remains ripe for investigation.

In research comparing older patients with musical training to those without, older people who’d spent time regularly practicing or teaching music consistently displayed much faster neural reaction times to certain kinds of sounds.

The idea that the human brain has a deep relationship with music is obviously nothing new – but lately, research has been demonstrating more and more ways in which music is a major ingredient in mental health. For example, a 2007 study found that the brain reacts to music by automatically heightening attention, and one in 2010 found that an ear for harmony was correlated with a better ability to distinguish speech from noise.

The therapeutic implications of all this haven’t gone unnoticed. The neuroscientist Michael Merzenich has cured patients of chronic tinnitus (ear-ringing) by prescribing them musical training – and he’s had remarkable success using it to improve the responsiveness of autistic children.

Inspired by Merzenich’s work, a team led by Northwestern University’s Nina Kraus made up an experiment: They decided to record the reaction times of musicians‘ brains when they heard certain sounds, and compare those against the reaction times of people with no musical training.

As the journal Neurobiology of Aging reports, the team inserted electrodes directly into the patients’ brains during surgery, like this (WARNING – the following image is a very cool but very bloody photo of brain surgery): here, and recorded exactly how quickly their auditory cortex reacted to a variety of speech sounds.

They found that older musicians’ brains seemed to keep their youthful reaction speeds; at least when it came to a certain kind of sound: The syllable “da” – one of the “hard” vowel sounds known as formant transitions in science slang:

Although younger and older musicians exhibited equivalent response timing for the formant transition, older nonmusicians demonstrated significantly later re-sponse timing relative to younger nonmusicians … The main effect of musicianship observed for the neural response to the onset and the transition was driven solely by group differences in the older participants.

In other words, a musicians’ brain responds to the “da” sound just as quickly as it did in youth – but a nonmusician’s response time slows down significantly as it ages.

The slowdown isn’t much – only a few milliseconds – but in brain time, that can be enough to cause problems. See, we’re not talking about conscious reaction time here – this is electrophysiological reaction time – the speed at which information travels in the brain.

Why does this matter? Because mental issues like autism, senile dementia and schizophrenia are all related to very slight timing errors in the brain’s elaborate communication patterns. An aging brain isn’t so much an old clock as an old city. Ever notice how the most ancient cities tend to be the ones with the weirdest cultures? Well, there ya go.

Just like old cities, though, autism and dementia and schizophrenia – and aging – can be scary sometimes, but they’re also the sources of great breakthroughs, and remarkable insights, and all sorts of conversations that couldn’t have happened otherwise.

What I’m saying is, the only measurable difference between a disorder and a gift is that one is helpful and the other isn’t. And in most cases, that difference really comes down to timing.

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One Response to “Musical Learning”

  1. [...] plenty of studies have examined the neural correlates of straightforward cause-and-effect learning, the [...]

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