Brain wave changes may underlie enhanced cognition in children with musical training

0 10

A recent study published in Brain and Behavior has shed light on how musical training might enhance working memory and attention in children, providing deeper insight into the neurobiological mechanisms that underpin these cognitive improvements. Researchers found that children who received musical training demonstrated better performance on tasks requiring attention and working memory compared to their peers without such training. These improvements were linked to specific changes in brain activity, especially in certain types of brain waves called alpha and theta waves.

A growing body of evidence suggests that musical training can enhance cognitive functions, particularly working memory and attention. Working memory is crucial for holding and manipulating information over short periods, while attention is vital for selecting and focusing on relevant stimuli. Both are essential for learning and academic performance. Previous research had demonstrated that musical training improves auditory working memory, but its effects on visual working memory and the underlying neural mechanisms were less well understood.

“I was interested in investigating this topic because as a violin teacher, I could first hand experience the positive impact that instrumental lessons have on the integral development of children,” said study author Leonie Kausel, a faculty member at the Centro de Estudios en Neurociencia Humana y Neuropsicología (CENHN) at the Universidad Diego Portales (UDP) in Chile.

“As a matter of fact, I entered to study my PhD in Neuroscience with the intention of pursuing this line of research, and I was lucky to have an incredible tutor, Dr. Francisco Aboitiz, and also a very supportive co-tutor, Dr. Francisco Zamorano, and postdoc supervisor, Dr. Pablo Billeke, who allowed me to start and continue this research line.”

“And once I started my PhD program, I got fascinated by attention, the research topic of Dr. Francisco Aboitiz, this cognitive function that shapes our perception of our exterior (and interior) world! Another reason for investigating attention, working memory and musical training, was that I am interested in better understanding how cognitive functions that are fundamental to learning could be shaped by musical training.”

The study involved 40 healthy, right-handed children aged 10 to 13 years from Santiago, Chile. The participants were divided into two groups: 20 musically trained children who had been playing a musical instrument for at least two years, and 20 non-musically trained children who had no additional musical training beyond their school curriculum.

To measure the impact of musical training on attention and working memory, the children completed a bimodal attention and working memory task while their brain activity was recorded using electroencephalography (EEG). The task involved presenting auditory (melodies) and visual (figures) stimuli simultaneously. Children were instructed to focus on either one or both types of stimuli and later recall these stimuli. Their performance was assessed based on accuracy and reaction time in the memory tasks.

The researchers found that musically trained children outperformed their non-musically trained peers. These children exhibited higher accuracy and better focus, indicating an overall enhancement in cognitive function due to musical training.

Musically trained children showed a decrease in alpha power just before and at the beginning of the stimulus presentation. This reduction, particularly in the frontal and temporoparietal brain regions, is associated with the brain’s ability to filter out irrelevant information and enhance the signal of relevant stimuli. This suggests that musical training enhances the brain’s capacity to selectively attend to and process important information.

Additionally, an increase in theta and alpha power was observed towards the end of the stimulus presentation in musically trained children. This increase was found in the frontal, parietal, and occipitotemporal regions. Higher theta power suggests greater encoding capacity, crucial for retaining information in working memory. Elevated alpha power indicates better inhibition of irrelevant sensory input, protecting and maintaining the memory of the current stimuli.

“In this study, we investigated brain oscillations that are correlated with better performance of musically trained children on an attention and working memory task that involved bimodal (auditory and visual) stimuli,” Kausel told PsyPost. “We found that both enhanced attention and working memory oscillatory mechanisms seem to facilitate improved bimodal stimuli encoding in musically trained children.”

“These findings suggest that musical training during childhood could be related to the optimization of attention and working memory functions, which could be positive for the general developmental trajectory of these children. Also, these results could help to inspire interventions and strategies aimed at improving attention and working memory difficulties.”

Interestingly, the improvements in brain activity and cognitive performance were observed even when the children were not specifically instructed to focus on the auditory or visual stimuli, indicating a general enhancement in cognitive abilities due to musical training.

“This article is the second part of a research that involved measuring brain activity of the same child population with and without musical training with fMRI (Kausel et al, 2020, Frontiers in Neuroscience) and EEG (this article, Kausel et al, 2024, Brain and Behaviour) while solving our bimodal attention and working memory task. The finding that most surprised me was that there seems to be an impact of musical training on two different mechanisms,” Kausel explained.

“On one hand on attentional mechanisms; and on the other hand on working memory encoding mechanisms, which can help to encode information of a particular type of stimuli (auditory) even when attention is not focused on them in certain environments such as when there is lots of noise (fMRI results obtained in a noisy environment), and also on a more general manner for bimodal stimuli when attention is not necessarily directed to the correctly encoded stimuli (EEG results).”

“I was very surprised by these results, because I was expecting to find differences only in the attention mechanisms, and not in working memory mechanisms that could function imdepemdent of attention focus. I think these results show how brain networks are wonderfully interrelated and how they work in synergy to express behavioral outcomes.”

The study, while providing valuable insights into the relationship between musical training and cognitive improvements, has several limitations. Firstly, the sample size was relatively small, which may limit the generalizability of the findings. Additionally, the study’s cross-sectional design means it cannot establish causality; it can only show an association between musical training and enhanced working memory and attention.

Pre-existing differences in cognitive abilities between musically trained and non-musically trained children before the onset of musical training were not assessed, which raises the possibility that those with better initial cognitive abilities might be more likely to engage in and sustain musical training. Future longitudinal studies are needed to determine whether musical training directly causes improvements in these cognitive functions and to rule out potential confounding factors.

“My long term goals are to continue investigating the impact that musical training or musical interventions can have on people along our developmental path,” Kausel said. “At present, I am working on a project that is evaluating the impact of a musical intervention on executive and socioemotional functions of institutionalized older adults.

“I expect that this research line will continue in order to better understand the neurobiological mechanisms that can be impacted by musical training across age ranges in typical and clinical populations. On a broader picture, I am interested in continuing to explore learning and the arts, in particular music, from neuroscience with a 4E (Embodied, Enacted, Embedded and Extended) cognition perspective.”

“I hope this research can help to underscore the importance of the arts, and particularly of musical training, for a holistic development of children,” Kausel added. “Making music is a very rewarding and joyful activity, that also gives you other tools and a language to express yourself, and it would be great if every child could have the opportunity to try it out.”

The study, “Theta and alpha oscillations may underlie improved attention and working memory in musically trained children,” was authored by Leonie Kausel, F. Zamorano, P. Billeke, M. E. Sutherland, M. I. Alliende, J. Larrain-Valenzuela, P. Soto-Icaza, and F. Aboitiz.

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.