Friday, September 26, 2014

Brain Plasticity Induced by Musical Training

Wan, C., & Schlaug, G. (2013). Brain plasticity induced by musical training. In D. Deutsch (Ed.), The psychology of music (3rd ed.) (pp. 565 - 581). London, UK: Academic Press.

The authors summarize research pertaining to effects of music training on brain organization and function.  Research points to the beneficial effects of music training on cognitive development in children. Studies have implicated improvements in reading abilities; verbal recall; vocabulary, mathematical, and spatial skills amongst musically trained children. Musical tasks may affect performance in non-musical areas because of shared neural resources. Although both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have shown the positive impact of musical training on cognitive function, further research is required to gain better understanding of the mechanisms underlying associations between cognitive development and musical training. Imaging studies have shown, for example, larger anterior corpus callosum in musicians, particularly those who began training prior to age seven. Research using imaging methods such as magnetoencephalography,  functional magnetic resonance imaging, and diffusion tensor imaging continues to yield information showing the effects of music training throughout the life span on structural and functional brain organization. This has important implications for rehabilitation from neurological impairments, such as acquired brain injuries, as well as stimulation of speech production in nonverbal children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  

Interactions between auditory and motor areas of the brain are critical for the acquisition of verbal as well as musical skills.  Ongoing research is determining the therapeutic potential of music-based interventions in facilitating language production in stroke patients with aphasia and nonverbal autistic children. Neuroimaging has demonstrated the shared brain networks of music and language, supporting the notion of active, intensive music interventions in facilitating language output. Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT) has been used successfully with patients suffering from nonfluent aphasia; neuroimaging studies have shown reorganization of brain functions, with increased right hemisphere network activation, including premotor, interior frontal, and temporal lobes, as well as changes in the arcuate fasciculus connecting these regions. Auditory-motor mapping has been used successfully with nonverbal children with ASD, using a combination of word and phrase intonation and motor activity.  While research results demonstrating links between music training and neuroplasticity are compelling, it is critical that further randomized clinical trials be undertaken to support the development of music-based interventions to aid in development and rehabilitation.


This is a fascinating time to be exploring links between music training and learning throughout the life span, as well as implications for music interventions on health care practices. Technological advances are providing insights into the effects of music on brain structure and function that we have previously had an intuitive understanding of, but no scientific support. It is important that we continue to build on these scientific discoveries to support the inclusion of music in education and health care practice. To gain acceptance within the scientific community and the attention of educational and health care systems, evidence-based clinical research needs to be undertaken in addition to qualitative research to substantiate gains and provide rationale for music-based interventions in educational and health care settings. Without such supporting evidence, music risks being relegated to an ancillary rather than a primary role in facilitating change in educational and health care contexts.