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Music as Brain Food

Research reveals musicians have more gray matter

THURSDAY, May 10 (HealthScout) -- When your kids grow up, they just might thank you for forcing them to practice piano scales.

Professional musicians who began studying music as young children have more gray matter in certain areas of the brain than non-musicians, a Harvard study has found. Gray matter consists of brain cells and the connections between them.

But what the finding means for musicians, and the rest of us, is still unknown, says lead study author Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Using magnetic brain-imaging technology, researchers looked at the brains of 15 male musicians who began their training at about age 3, and compared their brains to 15 non-musicians.

The enlarged areas in the musicians' brains included the left and right primary sensorimotor regions, the left intraparietal sulcus region, the left basal ganglia region, the left posterior perisylvian region and the cerebellum, says the study, which was presented this week at the American Academy of Neurology's 53rd annual meeting in Philadelphia.

Schlaug says the rigors of musical training during a period of immense growth and development of the brain may help form new neural connections within the sensorimotor regions, which are important in the acquisition of motor skills.

Another possibility is that infants who become musicians are born with differences in the brain that "may draw them toward their musical gifts," Schlaug says.

"Additional study is necessary to confirm causal relationships between intense motor training for a long period of time and structural changes in motor and non-motor related brain regions," he says.

Some researchers are intrigued with another aspect of musical training -- whether music lessons for children enhance brain development in a way that translates into other skills, such as mathematics, says Gordon Shaw, president of the Music Intelligence Neural Development Institute in Irvine, Calif.

For example, the cerebellum, one of the enlarged brain areas in the musicians, is believed to be involved in "spatial temporal reasoning," or the ability to visualize concepts, a skill helpful in mathematics, Shaw says.

But enlarged brain areas in professional musician's don't necessarily mean musicians are better at math, Shaw says. The skills may not be transferable, he says. Or possibly musicians and others trained in music as children have a greater capacity for learning math, but the natural inclination has to be exploited through mathematics training, he says.

Still, other research has shown that early musical training can improve intelligence. In one 1998 study, 66 children, ages 4 to 6, were given a Stanford-Binet intelligence test.

Afterward, half the children were given a year of music instruction, while half had none. The musically trained performed significantly better on a subsequent intelligence test than the kids who had no instruction, says Terry Bilhartz, lead author of that study and a history professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

"I am thoroughly convinced early musical instruction has a great benefit for children, not only in terms of neurological benefit, but non-cognitive social advantages," Bilhartz says.

What to Do: To learn more about music and the brain, check Ohio State University's Music Cognition Program or these other HealthScout stories on music.

SOURCES: Interviews with Gottfried Schlaug, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Gordon Shaw, Ph.D., president, Music Intelligence Neural Development Institute, Irvine, Calif.; Terry Bilhartz, Ph.D., history professor, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas
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