Playing It Smart

A foundation in music can last for years

Forever Young: Musical training and years of practice and learning help individuals' brains stay sharp and flexible, delaying cognitive decline.

You know those piano lessons your parents made you take? Be sure to thank them. Even if you can’t quite remember the opening notes of Moonlight Sonata, that early exposure is probably still paying off.

Research shows that childhood musical training adds plasticity in brain development, increasing cognitive capacity and protecting against age-related cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The study, by Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, a clinical neuropsychologist in Emory’s Department of Neurology, and cognitive psychologist Alicia MacKay, found that older individuals who spent a significant amount of time throughout life playing a musical instrument perform better on certain cognitive tests than individuals who did not play an instrument. Published in the April issue of the journal Neuropsychology, this was the first research to examine whether the benefits of playing an instrument as a child can extend across a lifetime. “Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging,” says Hanna-Pladdy. “Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older.”

Allan Levey, director of Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and chair of the Department of Neurology, says it wasn’t until Hanna-Pladdy’s research “that we fully comprehended the role of music education in delaying the aging of the brain.”

The study enrolled seventy individuals ages sixty to eighty-three who were divided into three groups: those who had no musical training, those with one to nine years of musical study, and those with at least ten years of musical training. All of the participants had similar levels of education and fitness, and didn’t show any evidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

Cognitive performance was measured by testing brain functions that typically decline as the body ages and more dramatically deteriorate in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The high-level musicians who had studied the longest performed the best on the cognitive tests, followed by the low-level musicians and nonmusicians, revealing a trend relating to years of musical practice. The high-level musicians had higher scores than the nonmusicians on cognitive tests relating to visual-spatial memory, naming objects, and cognitive flexibility (the brain’s ability to adapt to new information).

“We believe that both the years of musical participation and the age of acquisition are critical,” Hanna-Pladdy says. “There are crucial periods in brain plasticity that enhance learning, which may make it easier to learn a musical instrument before a certain age and thus may have a larger impact on brain development.”

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director and Emory Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Robert Spano says the transformative power of music has always been “both an article of faith and a core fact of my personal experience, so I find this research both profoundly fascinating and affirming.”

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