An ambitious study by the National Institutes of Health (USA), started in 1999, is just now giving results. The research is studying 500 healthy children, from all different socio-economic backgrounds. These children have been studied with MRI brain scans over several years of their lives.
The idea is to learn what brain scans look like on totally normal children. In this way, doctors will better be able to know what is abnormal when looking at a brain scan done on a child who needs a scan for a suspected brain problem.
The researchers are mapping the various brain structures, measuring the thickness of every area to see what normal brain development looks like on resonance scans. One result from the study, just published, is that children who learn to play a musical instrument have significantly superior brain development in several important areas.
The children had faster development, and thicker brain tissues, in areas having to do with attention skills, anxiety management, and emotional control. (Brain improvements that also should make the life of the parent easier as wellJ
Dr. James Hudziak, principal study author, said “Everyone in our culture knows if I lift 5-pound, 10-pound, 15-pound weights, my biceps will get bigger. The same is true for the brain.” Learning to play an instrument, having to learn and memorize music and hand positions, adjust for the sounds produced, and many other factors, is great brain exercise. Practicing an instrument develops hand coordination as well as reading and hearing functions, and the ability to focus on the music while excluding outside noises.
Previous, shorter-term studies, have also shown brain improvements in children who learn to play instruments. Many of these studies also used resonance scans. A study published in 2013 showed that children who learned to play before age 7 developed more connectivity between the right and left sides of the brain—connections should last the child’s lifetime. The studies suggest that the best time to start this training is before age 8, if possible, since the developing brain is more sensitive and able to change at that age.
If you are a parent of a child who spends maybe too much time on the computer, with video games, or sports activities, you will give your child advantages that will last the child’s lifetime if you can get them interested in learning an instrument, and the earlier the better. Not that sports or video games or the computer are bad, but balancing their time with musical training might make them smarter, as well as more coordinated.
The exams used in this research were resonance scans and not computerized tomography scans (CT). Resonance scans do not expose the child to any radiation, and basically have no side effects. CT scans, on the other hand, while not showing as much detail as a resonance scan, also expose the child to significant radiation. This radiation, especially to the developing brain, has been linked to a higher risk of brain tumors.
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