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Wanted: Old Musician’s Brain

Musical training early in life may offset the decline in speech processing that comes decades later.
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(Illustration: Denis Carrier)

(Illustration: Denis Carrier)

Many older adults are forced to deal with a frustrating phenomenon: Engaged in a conversation (especially in a noisy room), they can hear what is being said, but they can’t grasp its meaning.

This difficulty in processing speech is technically known as decreased neural inhibition, and it’s considered a normal part of aging. But in the Journal of Neuroscience, Gavin Bidelman of the University of Memphis and Claude Alain of the University of Toronto report that musical training early in life may offset this decline decades later.

Their small-scale study featured 10 non-musicians and 10 amateur instrumentalists who started taking lessons before age 14 and were currently active players.

In a series of tests, the instrumentalists demonstrated superior ability to correctly identify and categorize speech-related sounds.

“Old musicians’ brains provide a much more detailed, clean, and accurate depiction of the speech signal,” says Bidelman, whose results provide yet another example of the myriad benefits of musical training.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.


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