A Canadian study is underway to look at whether musical training gives children an edge over non-musical counterparts in verbal and writing skills AND gives the elderly an edge in preserving cognitive function for as long as possible. It is one of the most ambitious studies to date to look at musical training and its influence on the brain's wiring across the age spectrum.
The reseach is lead by neuroscientist Dr. Christo Pantev at The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto and will be carried out together with Profs. Larry E. Roberts and Laurel Trainor from McMaster University in Hamilton. The project is funded with a $200,000 US grant from the California-based International Foundation for Music Research.
"The brain is malleable from childhood to adulthood," says Dr. Pantev. "If musical training is found to have a beneficial effect on brain function beyond that involved in musical performance, this may have implications for the education of children, for life-long strategies to preserve the fitness of the aging brain, and for rehabilitation and retraining strategies after the brain has been damaged by stroke or disease."
"The Foundation is committed to supporting quality research that expands what we know intuitively about the importance and relevancy of music in all aspects of life," says Glenn Holtz, Chairman of Gemeinhardt Co. Inc. of Elkhart, Ind., and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the International Foundation for Music Research. "We are honored to support the work of Dr. Pantev and we look forward to sharing in the process of discovery that is at the heart of this important work."
Previously with the University of Muenster's Institute of Experimental Audiology in Germany, Dr. Pantev has studied the brains of professional musicians to learn how music can trigger physical changes in the brain's wiring. His findings, published in major scientific journals such as Nature and Science, have shown that musicians have enhanced cortical auditory and somatosensory areas of the brain compared to non-musicians. Moreover, musicians who commenced musical training at an early age showed larger cortical areas compared to those who started later.
In this current study, Dr. Pantev and his team will study the brains of young children enrolled at a Suzuki School of Music in Toronto and Hamilton, as well as the brains of older adults, who have musical training, living at Baycrest Centre. The Suzuki children, ages 4 to 6, will be introduced to violin or piano lessons. Both the young and old groups will undergo testing to measure their perceptual and cognitive skills compared against similarly-aged control groups who have no musical training.
Researchers want to answer four broad questions:
1. How does the functional activity of the brain differ between musicians and non-musicians?
2. Are brain attributes associated with musical skill, the product of musical training?
3. If training is found to modify brain development, are there benefits of musical training for cognitive and perceptual skills beyond those involved in music performance?
4. Does musical experience have life enhancing effects in the elderly brain?
Researchers will use imaging techniques -- EEG to measure electrical changes, MEG to measure magnetic changes -- to monitor how the brain functionally reorganizes in response to musical training. MRI will be used for obtaining the corresponding anatomic information of the underlying brain structures.
Dr. Pantev was recently named a Canada Research Chair in Human Cortical Plasticity. Based at the University of Toronto, the Chair will explore the most effective strategies for rehabilitating brains damaged by stroke. Approximately one quarter of those who suffer a stroke develop dementia, with speech and attention being common problems.