Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Training-induced Neuroplasticity in Young Children

Source: The Music and Neuroimaging Lab: “Training-induced Neuroplasticity in Young Children”
Retrieved from:

Summary: Learning to play a musical instrument involves complex cognitive and bimanual motor skill acquisition, as well as sensory stimulation and this experience provides an ideal activity with which to investigate changes in the brain as a function of learning.
It is known that in music making, we engage simultaneously both hemispheres of the brain. Professional musicians who began their music training before the age of 7 exhibit a larger anterior corpus callosum (CC) than non-musicians, which suggests that plasticity due to music training may occur in the CC during early childhood. It is unknown, though, whether this enlarged CC area in musicians is due to training or if it is a pre-existing difference.
This article outlines a study that was conducted over a period of 29 months, involving 31 children, age 5-7, testing the hypothesis that “instrumental music training would cause an increase in the size of particular subareas of the CC known to have fibres that connect motor-related areas of both hemispheres.” The 31 children were divided in 3 groups based on their total weekly practice time: high-practicing, low-practicing, and controls. 18 children attended weekly half-hour lessons (11 learned piano, 7 learned string instruments), while the remaining 13 children served as a non-instrumental control – received no musical training.
Through the use of high-resolution T1-weighted MR, brain scans were taken both at the start of the study and at its conclusion. Total CC size, as well as subareas were measured.
Beside weekly lesson and practicing, children also completed a 4-finger fine motor-skill sequencing task at both time points.
The results of the study show that difference in the anterior midbody of the CC emerged after 29 months of music training in the high-practicing group; their motor-sequencing task results also improved. Low-practice and controls did not differ in the extent of change. This proves the hypothesis that intense musical experience/practice, not pre-existing differences, is the reason for large anterior CC area found in professional musicians.

Response: Undoubtedly the most important function of corpus callosum is to facilitate the process of inter-hemispheric communication. While the right hemisphere is responsible for creativity and intuition, the left side is responsible for analytical and rational thinking; without the corpus callosum to connect them, there would be no communication between the two hemispheres. It is interesting, but not uncharacteristic, I think, that playing a musical instrument would develop this part of the brain. A musician taps both into his creative and intuitional side, as well as analytical and rational thinking, when practicing or performing, inevitably emphasising the bond between the two hemispheres of the brain. I have always been amazed at the brain’s capability to shape itself at an early age and thus the importance of early childhood exposure to as many different disciplines as to optimize the development of the brain. When an area of the brain is not used, it eventually becomes unresponsive.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Brain is "Wired for Music"

Source: Newsweek. “Music on the Mind” by Sharon Begley.

Psychologist Sandra Trehub has found that babies naturally detect changed in pitch, tempo, and melodic contours. She has also found that when the babies are played perfect fourths and perfect fifths,they smile, but express displeasure when played tritones. This had led Trehub to conclude that this is a biologically-based preference and "may explain the inclusion of perfect fifths and fourths in music across cultures and across centuries."

Evidence from PET scans and MRIs suggest the human brain is wired for music. It also seems music can enhance particular modalities of intelligence. Various experiments have shown higher test scores in math achieved by students in control groups who were given music lessons. This enhancement has been displayed only in math – other forms of intelligence were not enhanced.

The average person can remember and recognize large amounts of musical tunes, which is not usually true for memorizing and recognizing prose. This suggests the brain places preference over musical memory. When neurosurgeons stimulate the temporal lobes, patients have been known to hear music. Music can also trigger epileptic seizures which often begin in the temporal lobes. This is further explained by the following experiment:

"The brain's left and right hemispheres are connected by a big trunk line called the corpus callosum. When they compared the corpus callosum in 30 nonmusicians with the corpus callosum in 30 professional string and piano players, researchers. . . found striking differences. The front part of this thick cable of neurons is larger in musicians, especially if they began their training before the age of 7. The front of the corpus callosum connects the two sides of the prefrontal cortex. . . and the two sides of the premotor cortex…These connections are critical for coordinating fast, bi-manual movements such as those a pianist's hands execute in an allegro movement. The neural highway connecting the right and left brain may explain something else, too. The right brain is linked to emotion, the left to cognition. The greatest musicians, of course, are not only masters of technique but also adept at infusing their playing with emotion. Perhaps this is why."

Another experiment conducted comparison studies where non-musicians were taught a simple five-finger piano exercise which they practiced in the lab for 5 days, 2 hours per day. Another group mentally rehearsed this pattern for the same amount of time. In both these groups, the cortical map was changed, demonstrating the important of both mental and physical practice.


While some of the conclusions mentioned in this article have already been much discussed in the fields of music and science, it is encouraging to see that studies continue to be performed to uncover as much as is possible about the biological and neurological conditions for music in humans. The most striking experiment noted in this article is the one describing the importance of mental preparation. By merely rehearsing a musical pattern in one’s mind, non-musicians (who likely do not have much experience with such practice) were able to effect an equal mental change in their cortical maps, as did those who rehearsed physically on the piano. This emphasizes the importance of mental preparation for any musician. It is not enough to simply play a piece frequently – one must also have a thorough mental picture of the piece to ensure fluidity and precision during performances.

Wolfgang Makes a Bad Study Partner







 Source: Studying with music: helping or hurting?  article available at

This article comes from a student newspaper and addresses study habits related to music.  The reporter unpacks some common misconceptions about the Mozart Effect™ and why studying with classical music probably won't help you retain information. 

According to an interview the Gary Dell, who is a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, music interrupts the brain's ability to transfer memories from short-term storage to long-term storage.  The interruption is more pronounced when listening to music that one enjoys.  Where people misinterpret the Mozart Effect™ is assuming that since Mozart was a genius, some of that genius will rub off if you listen to his music while studying.  The reporter points out that the famous Rauscher study proved only a temporary improvement in spacial tasks and that any rousing music will probably have the same effect.

I picked this article for two reasons.  First, it's the end of term and it seemed like a pertinent topic.  Second, I've always been somewhat confused by people who say that classical music helps them study.  The article briefly ties together a couple of concepts that we have covered in class, namely the rehearsal process of transferring short-term memory to long-term memory and the Mozart Effect™. 

My personal experience with trying to study while listening to music is that I absolutely can't do it.  Judging by the comments in the article from Gary Dell I assume that those of you who study music students would agree with me.  If I have music on, I can't help but listen to it actively.  I listen for what instruments are playing, I notice when there is an interesting melody or harmonic shift, and I judge if the players are good or bad.  It's not possible for me to just ignore the music.  Likely the people who can listen to Mozart while studying are probably not the same people who are studying Mozart. 

If you still really want something to listen to while you study though, recent research by Jutras and Buffalo (2010) might have an answer for you.  They point out several studies have shown that rhythmic synchronization in gamma and theta frequencies can contribute to memory performance.   So, if you really want to ace your exams, listen to a binaural beats track that boosts gamma and theta waves.   Don't study with Wolfie.

Excessive Alcohol Can Influence Hearing Loss

Reference: Connors, Aoife. 2010. "Excessive Alcohol Can Influence Hearing Loss." Irish Medical Times, November 19. Accessed December 6, 2010.

Researchers from the University of Ulm in Germany tested both heavy and social drinkers’ Brainstem Auditory Evoked Potentials (BAEP) levels, by testing the level of damage in the part of the brain that enables one to hear. The results indicated that alcohol consumption affects the ability to hear. Alcohol could damage the central auditory cortex of the brain, therefore affecting the ability to hear: the ears might function fine, but the brain cannot process the sounds due to the damage to the auditory nerves. The quantity of alcohol and the length of time needed for the brain damage are unknown, which implies that even moderate drinkers may risk the hearing loss. The study also found that people with alcoholism may suffer damage within their ears, since high levels of alcohol in the bloodstream can create a toxic environment known as ototoxicity, which can damage the delicate hair cells in the cochlea.

Reflection: Excessive drinking is known to have bad influences in health, but it was the first time that I heard any connection made between drinking and hearing. Drunkenness is often accompanied with temporal numbness, and the past British study results of alcohol and noise causing temporary hearing loss is not that surprising. However, the fact that drinking could damange the auditory cortex, is quite serious (well, now I am glad that I don't drink). The article did not describe the study results with specific numbers, but the implication that even social drinkers might experience the brain damage, calls for immediate further investigation. I found the affect of alcoholism to the cochlea also to be very interesting; I would like to know how alcohol can create a toxic environment for the cochlea. In any means, excessive and regular alcohol consumption likely to lead to hearing loss, either through brain or cochlea damage.