Past research has indicated that musical training in childhood may benefit the brain later in life. Now, a new study from Boston Children’s Hospital, MA, adds to the evidence, suggesting that both children and adults with musical training show improved executive brain function, compared with those who are not musically trained.

Executive function is defined as cognitive mechanisms in the brain responsible for processing and retaining information, decision making, problem solving, regulating behaviors and planning and adjusting to changing mental demands.

According to senior investigator Nadine Gaab, PhD, of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital, executive function is a strong predictor of academic achievement, “even more so than IQ,” she adds.

Although it is already known that musical training is associated with an individual’s cognitive abilities, the team notes that very few studies have looked at how such training influences executive function directly.

To find out, the investigators used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyze the brains of 15 children ages 9-12 who were musically trained (had played a musical instrument for at least 2 years in regular private music lessons), alongside 12 children of the same age who were not musically trained.

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During cognitive tests, both the musically trained children and the adult musicians showed improvements within numerous areas of executive function.

In addition, the researchers compared the fMRI scans of 15 adults who were active professional musicians with those of 15 adults who were not professional musicians.

The team notes that family demographic factors can affect whether a child receives private music lessons, so they matched both musician and non-musician groups among children and adults by parental education, job status (parental job status for children and personal job status for adults) and household income. They also matched the groups by IQ.

All participants were required to undergo a series of cognitive tests, and the children underwent fMRI scans during the tests.

The study results, recently published in the journal PLOS One, revealed that during the cognitive tests, both the musically trained children and the adult musicians showed improvements within numerous areas of executive function, compared with children who were not musically trained and non-musician adults.

In the fMRI scans, musically trained children demonstrated higher activation in three areas of the prefrontal cortex – the supplementary motor area, the pre-supplementary area and the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex – during a cognitive test that required them to shift between mental tasks. These three areas are associated with executive function, according to the researchers.

Commenting on the team’s findings, Gaab says:

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.

Our results may also have implications for children and adults who are struggling with executive functioning, such as children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or [the] elderly. Future studies have to determine whether music may be utilized as a therapeutic intervention tool for these children and adults.”

However, the researchers point out that children who are already taking part in private music lessons may have existing executive function abilities that feed their interest in music, therefore it may be that executive function influences musical training.

But the team says they hope to establish that the reverse is true, by conducting studies that monitor children long-term as they are randomly assigned to musical training.

Medical News Today recently reported on new research that shows how music can benefit the brain, not only for those who create it, but also for those who listen to it.