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Making Music Builds a More Efficient Brain

There's new evidence that the brains of musicians and bilinguals require less effort to perform cognitive tasks.

We often ask a lot of our brains. Solving problems requires holding many pieces of information in our minds simultaneously, so we can compare and combine them to come up with creative solutions.

That all-important ability is called "working memory," and it takes considerable mental effort. That is, unless you play a musical instrument, or speak a second language.

New research suggests that, over time, engaging in those challenging activities effectively rewires the brain, allowing it to complete complex assignments with greater ease. A 2017 meta-study found musicians have stronger working-memory skills; this research provides a likely reason why.

"These findings show that musicians and bilinguals require less effort to perform the same task," lead author Claude Alain of the University of Toronto's Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care said in announcing the results. These skills, he adds, could "protect them against cognitive decline, and delay the outset of dementia."

The study, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, featured 41 Canadians between the ages of 19 and 35. They were divided into three groups: Musicians who only spoke English; Non-musicians who only spoke English; and English speakers who were fluent in a second language but did not play a musical instrument. (Musicians all had at least seven years of musical training, and were currently active as performers.)

While their brain activity was scanned, participants listened to and categorized a series of sounds. They noted whether each new sound was human-caused (such as a cough or laugh), environmental (like a drop of water), or a note from a musical instrument.

The researchers found musicians outperformed both bilinguals and monolingual non-musicians in terms of categorizing sounds, while musicians and bilinguals both excelled at pinpointing their locations.

Brain scans revealed that, "in both tasks and both levels of difficulty, musicians showed lower brain activity than controls" in two key regions of the brain. This "may reflect improved and more efficient use of natural resources," the researchers write.

The researchers offered an additional intriguing finding. Both the musicians and bilinguals "showed distinct task-specific patterns of activation" in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain associated with processing, learning, and memory.

Given that decreased activity in this region has been linked with cognitive deterioration, this suggests "musical training and bilingualism might be protective factors against age-related executive function decline."

The researchers are exploring all of this further, to get a clearer picture of how musical training effects neural function. But early indications suggest a musician's brain is a more efficient brain—and perhaps a more resilient one as well.