Learning a musical instrument is a terrific opportunity for children to express themselves creatively while picking up a new skill. It could be much more than this though, according to researchers, who suggest that musical training could also serve to hone their mental energies.

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Learning to play a musical instrument as a child could affect the way in which the brain grows.

In a new study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, a child psychiatry team has found that learning a musical instrument could help children to reduce feelings of anxiety, gain a greater control of their emotions and give a stronger focus to their attention.

The authors describe the study as “the largest investigation of the association between playing a musical instrument and brain development.”

The aim of the study was to assess any associations that may exist between playing a musical instrument and cortical thickening in the brain. As children grow up, the outer layer of the brain (cortex) changes in thickness, and certain changes have previously been found by researchers to be associated with altered mental states.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, cortical thickening and thinning in particular areas of the brain had been demonstrated by the team to indicate mental conditions such as anxiety, depression and attention problems, even in children who were undiagnosed with any form of mental disorder.

As a result, professor of psychiatry Dr. James Hudziak and colleagues decided to investigate whether positive stimulation in the form of musical training would have any effect on cortical thickening.

Participants for the study were taken from National Institutes of Health (NIH) MRI Study of Normal Brain Development. A total of 232 children, aged 6-18, were analyzed by the researchers.

Each participant underwent MRI scanning and behavioral testing on up to three different occasions with a 2-year interval between each one. As well as the data from these brain scans, the researchers had access to the participants’ IQ and musical training data.

The researchers observed a number of changes associated with musical training in various areas of the brain. As predicted, the motor areas were altered, as playing an instrument necessitates the control and co-ordination of movement.

Musical training was also associated with cortical thickening in areas of the brain related to executive functioning, inhibitory control and the processing of emotions. These include “working memory, attentional control, as well as organization and planning for the future,” write the authors.

No association was observed by the team, however, between cortical thickness and the number of years spent playing a musical instrument, only the age during which the playing occurred. The study’s findings were relatively unaffected when adjusted for IQ and handedness.

The findings of the study support The Vermont Family Based Approach – a model constructed by Dr. Hudziak in order to establish that every aspect of a young person’s environment, from the people they interact with to the activities they are involved with, contributes to their psychological health.

The authors acknowledge that there is a possibility that unmeasured confounding variables could have influenced the results, “given the quasi-experimental nature of this study.”

The findings suggest that there is a great scope for musical training to be used in the treatment of psychological disorders among children. “Music is a critical component in my model,” says Dr. Hudziak. “We treat things that result from negative things, but we never try to use positive things as treatment.”

Unfortunately, research from the US Department of Education provided within the study reports that around three quarters of US high school students “rarely or never” take extracurricular lessons in music or arts.

This figure represents a huge barrier to the team. “Such statistics, when taken in the context of our present neuroimaging results, underscore the vital importance of finding new and innovative ways to make music training more widely available to youths, beginning in childhood,” state the authors.

Recently, Medical News Today reported on research into the benefits of pre-school. Many studies have shown that the social and academic benefits of pre-school extend beyond the initial years of school.