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Health & Medicine Music Has the Power to Increase Executive Function in the Human Brain

Music Has the Power to Increase Executive Function in the Human Brain

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First Posted: Jun 19, 2014 07:13 AM EDT
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Music has the power to move us and now, scientists have found that it might also have the power to change our brains. A new study reveals that early musical training can result in improved executive function in both children and adults. (Photo : Flickr/Mararie)

Music has the power to move us and now, scientists have found that it might also have the power to change our brains. A new study reveals that early musical training can result in improved executive function in both children and adults.

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Executive functions are the high-level cognitive processes that allow people to quickly process and retain information, regulate their behaviors, make good choices, solve problems, plan and adjust to changing mental demands. While scientists have long known that musical training relates to cognitive abilities, though, they hadn't realized that it could improve executive functions.

In order to investigate the impacts of early musical training, the researchers compared 15 musically trained children between the ages of 9 to 12 with a control group of 12 untrained children of the same age. In order to qualify as musically trained, the children had to have had at least two years of regular, private music lessons. Then, the scientists compared 15 adults who were active professional musicians with 15 non-musicians.

So what did they find? On cognitive testing, adult musicians and musically trained children showed enhanced performance on several aspects of executive function. In addition, on fMRI, the musically trained children showed enhanced activation of specific areas of the prefrontal cortex during a test that made them switch between mental tasks.

"Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications," said Nadine Gaab, one of the researchers, in a news release. "While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation, our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future."

The findings don't just have implications for academic performance. It could also have implications for children and adults struggling with executive functioning, such as children with ADHD or the elderly. It's possible that music could be used as a therapeutic intervention in the future.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

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