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Learning Music as a Kid Heads Off Adult Depression, Anxiety

Yet more evidence in a new University of Vermont study.

by Michael Byrne
Dec 24 2014, 7:00pm

​Image: enjosmith/Flickr

It's hard to be distracted while playing music. The player is sort of just there, trapped in the thing itself. One can do intense, vigorous exercise while still watching TV, and one can write blog posts with a dozen beckoning tabs open in the same browser, but, whether its a violin or Max/MSP patcher, playing music asks for more: body, brain, emotions.

The impact of playing music on intelligence is hardly unexplored, but a new study from psychiatrists at the University of Vermont adds a couple of extra dimensions. Musicians are smarter, sure, but it would seem that they also are able to focus better, control their emotions more effectively, and they often wind up with less anxiety.

UVM's James Hudziak, also director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, called the new report "the largest investigation of the association between playing a musical instrument and brain development." Using a database provided by the NIH's Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Study of Normal Brain Development, the psychiatrists were able to look at the brain scans of 232 children ages 6 to 18.

Using these scans the UVM team examined a known physical indicator of depression and anxiety in developing brains: the thickness of the brain's outermost layer, e.g. the cortex.

THE PAST DECADE HAS SEEN AN EXPLOSION IN RESEARCH CORRELATING BRAIN FUNCTIONING WITH MUSICAL ABILITY

Varying cortical thickness turns out to be tied to all sorts of behavioral indicators, including aggression, attention, and "control issues." The new findings tie into a model developed by Hudziak called the Vermont Family Based Approach, which attempts to describe the entirety of a given child's environment—parents, teachers, friends, pets, extracurricular activities—and how it relates to psychological health.

"Music is a critical component in my model," Hudziak said in a statement.

"This study followed a longitudinal design such that participants underwent MRI scanning and behavioral testing on up to 3 separate visits, occurring at 2-year intervals," Hudziak and his team wrote in the current study. "MRI, IQ, and music training data were available for 232 youths (334 scans), ranging from 6 to 18 years of age."

Variations in cortical thickness were observed in the brain zones responsible for "executive functioning, including working memory, attentional control, as well as organization and planning for the future," the authors explain.

Hudziak's findings shouldn't come as a huge surprise. The past decade or so has seen an explosion in research correlating brain functioning with musical ability, a subject that's become all the more crucial as schools across the country race to slash music programs.

The basic idea is that playing music is a singularly focused and challenging neuro-workout. In an NPR interview, Ani Patel, author of Music, Language, and the Brain, summarized the relationship like this: "How do we process sequences with complex hierarchical structure and make sense of them? How do we integrate sensation and action? How do we remember long and difficult sequences of information?"

"These are fundamental neuroscience questions, and music can help us answer some of these questions," Patel said, "because it's in some ways simpler than language, but it's still of sufficient complexity that it can address these very deep and important aspects of human brain function."

A study released last June looked at both adults and children and how music ability relates to "executive functioning" within the brain, e.g. the "cognitive capacities that allow for planned, controlled behavior and strongly correlate with academic abilities."

"Adult musicians compared to non-musicians showed enhanced performance on measures of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and verbal fluency," that study concluded. "Musically trained children showed enhanced performance on measures of verbal fluency and processing speed ... Overall, musicians show enhanced performance on several constructs of EF, and musically trained children further show heightened brain activation in traditional EF regions during task-switching."

The implication here is clear enough. We can treat depression, anxiety, and ADHD with pills, but it should be possible to head off at least some of those cases early on through music. As the UVM team writes, "Such statistics, when taken in the context of our present neuroimaging results underscore the vital importance of finding new and innovative ways to make music training more widely available to youths, beginning in childhood."