How music rewires the brain

Evidence continues to grow that musical training may not
only serve as a powerful tool for treating mental illnesses but may also rewire
the brain to be more nimble at learning math and other subjects.

This ability to alter brain connections was the focus of a
recent “Music and the Brain” lecture at the Library of Congress in Washington,
D.C. Gottfried Schlaug, an associate professor
of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical
School, outlined three lines of neurological research into musical experience
and explained why scientists are optimistic about its potential for education
and rehabilitation.

“Music making engages quite a lot of real estate in the
brain,” he said. “We wanted to know if everyone has the potential to become an
accomplished musician, or if [musicians] start off with an atypical brain.”

In adults, for instance, he said, musicians with a long
history of practice tend to have bigger corpus callosa—the bundles of fibers
that connect the right and left halves of the brain—as well as enhanced motor
and auditory processing areas than do non-musicians.
Many of these changes were specific to the primary type of instrument used by a
musician. But everyone seems able to benefit: Adult non-musicians who took a
crash course in piano showed changes in their sequencing, musical and math
abilities even after just two weeks.

Schlaug also outlined results from a four-year study of
young children he is conducting with Ellen
Winner
, a psychology professor at Boston University. After 15 months,
children who began practicing music showed, as expected, improvements in motor
skills and melody and rhythm identification tasks. There were also suggestive,
but not statistically significant, evidence that the children were beginning to
excel in nonmusical tasks such as vocabulary and abstract reasoning. This type
of extension into a nonrelated mental ability is known as “far transfer.”

We have covered many of these findings in the context of
neuroeducation, a new field that seeks to use neuroscience findings to improve
teaching practices. Schlaug and Winner, for instance, were featured speakers
at the “Learning, Arts and the
Brain
” summit in May, where they presented their 15-month data.

Since then, however, data from 30 months into the child
study has been collected; although it is still in the process of being
analyzed, far transfer trends seem to be continuing, Schlaug said, increasing
interest in music’s potential educational benefits. Since the May conference,
Schlaug and his colleagues have also compiled videos demonstrating the extent
and rate of improvement in musical ability in their study participants.

Schlaug also presented a video showing how extensive rhythm
and singing therapy helped a four-year old boy with autism speak his very first
words. “Music,” Schlaug said, “may provide alternative entry into broken brain
systems that may not be linking up properly.” (The use of music for autism is
just the tip of the iceberg; music is also being used as treatment for spinal
cord injuries, stroke and other conditions. Look for more extensive coverage of
these therapies in the coming weeks.)

Schlaug’s presentation was the final “Music and the
Brain
” lecture of 2009. The series, presented by the Library of Congress
and the Dana Foundation, will resume on Jan. 21 with “Music, Memories, and the
Brain,” in which Petr Janata of the University of California, Davis, will outlining
brain imaging results from people who have experienced musical “trances.” As an
early Christmas present, the LOC has released free podcasts
of earlier lectures in the series.

-Aalok Mehta

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: