Researchers have found that musical training in childhood helps prevent decay in speech recognition skills later in life.
The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, may be the strongest evidence yet to show the importance of musical activities protecting brain plasticity in children and adults. In fact, the researchers found that older adults who had engaged in musical training in childhood were 20% faster in identifying speech sounds than their non-musical peers.
For some time, researchers have observed that the ability to quickly identify speech sounds significantly impacts speech identification tests for young children with musical training. However, little research has focused on observing the effect of musical training and speech recognition in aging adults.
The ability to retain various cognitive functions, like speech comprehension, can diminish with age. The brain’s central auditory system which supports an individual’s ability to parse, sequence, and identify acoustic features of speech weakens as we age. However, researchers believe that musical training prior to the age of 14 and continuing training for up to ten years appears to enhance key areas in the brain and protect older adults from weakened speech recognition.
In the study, 20 older adults ages 55-75 years -- ten musicians and ten non-musicians -- were asked to identify random speech sounds in a controlled lab setting. The researchers played various sounds through headphones that challenged the participants’ auditory processing abilities.
During the study, the researchers recorded the participants’ neural activity using EEG. The researchers used the brain imaging to pinpoint the exact timing of the brain’s electrical activity in response to the external stimuli.
The results revealed that the musicians’ brain responses were more efficient than the non-musicians at processing speech at multiple levels of auditory processing. Additionally, the musicians’ speech recognition abilities mirrored those of younger musicians.
Furthermore, the findings add to the ever-growing evidence that musical training in young children enhances developing brains and gives a cognitive boost. Remarkably, neural enhancements from musical training appear to extend across the lifespan into old age when the brain may need it the most.