Adults who have musical training may have the upper hand in the battle against cognitive decline in their later years, according to recently published research by IU Professor of Speech, Language and Hearing Science Gavin Bidelman and his colleagues at the University of Arkansas.
Bidelman’s lab studied older adults who were on the cusp of mild cognitive decline and who had five to 10 years of musical training, mostly instrumental, at some point in their past. Most mild cognitive impairment research is focused on symptoms such as memory loss and attention issues, but by the time such symptoms are evident, the disease is often too far advanced and could progress to Alzheimer’s disease, Bidelman said. If researchers can understand how the brain responds to everyday sounds, like speech, in individuals with mild cognitive impairment, it might be possible to catch the condition early enough to prevent steep declines from happening so quickly, if at all.
The researchers focused specifically on adults with past musical training to see if such experience gave study participants an advantage over those without musical training, with the hopes of ultimately being able to apply musical therapies to those who suffer mild cognitive decline.
“If you look at changes across the age spectrum, we can track declines in these speech processing measures with increasing age,” Bidelman said. “As you get older, the brain encodes speech less precisely, but in the music group, that decline is less steep, so there’s a suggestion that music engagement might protect against the normal age-related declines in speech processing and cognition.”
Current treatments for mild cognitive impairment are very limited and include only experimental drug therapy and “brain training games,” which attempt to stimulate brain function like a muscle.
“One of the benefits of music is it’s not a drug cocktail,” Bidelman said. “It’s a fun activity. If you can give someone an instrument and have them make music, and there’s some spillover effect into some of these day-to-day functions like cognition and communication, that’s a positive. Music training has zero side effects.”
Bidelman and his colleagues hope to obtain additional funding to conduct a larger study about whether musical training can offset the effects of aging, to include randomized control studies to test the validity of the theory and determine how much musical training one needs to see the benefits and how long the benefits last. For music training to be an effective treatment option for people with mild cognitive impairment, its effects must be rapid and long lasting, Bidelman said.
This work was supported by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health under award number NIH/NIDCD R01DC016267 to G.M.B.