Musical training may help children focus their attention, control their emotions, and lower their anxiety, according to a new study by psychiatrists at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.
The findings are published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
The study is the largest investigation of the link between playing a musical instrument and brain development, according to the authors. Using a database from the National Institutes of Health Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Study of Normal Brain Development, the team was able to analyze the brain scans of 232 children aged six to 18.
As children get older, the cortex (outer layer of the brain) changes in thickness. In a previous study, the researchers found that cortical thickening or thinning in specific areas of the brain reflected the occurrence of anxiety and depression, attention problems, aggression and behavior control issues even in healthy kids.
In the current study, they wanted to see whether a positive activity, such as musical training, could influence those indicators in the cortex.
The study supports The Vermont Family Based Approach, a model created by lead study author James Hudziak. The model states that everything in a young person’s environment — including parents, teachers, friends, pets, and extracurricular activities — contributes to his or her psychological health.
“Music is a critical component in my model,” says Hudziak, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families.
The authors found that playing music altered the motor areas in the brain, because it requires control and coordination of movement. There were also changes in the behavior-regulating areas of the brain.
For example, music practice influenced thickness in the part of the cortex that relates to “executive functioning, including working memory, attentional control, as well as organization and planning for the future,” the authors write.
A child’s musical background also appears to correlate with cortical thickness in “brain areas that play a critical role in inhibitory control, as well as aspects of emotion processing.”
The study supports Hudziak’s hypothesis that a violin might help a child battle psychological disorders even better than medication. “We treat things that result from negative things, but we never try to use positive things as treatment,” he says.
Such an approach may be difficult to carry out. The authors note that that three-quarters of U.S. high school students “rarely or never” take extracurricular lessons in music or the arts.
“Such statistics, when taken in the context of our present neuroimaging results,” the authors write, “underscore the vital importance of finding new and innovative ways to make music training more widely available to youths, beginning in childhood.”
Source: University of Vermont