Improved Memory and Attention in Musically Trained Children


A recent study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and the Universidad del Desarrollo Chile investigated the relationship between playing an instrument and brain development.

The researchers specifically tested the working memory and attention of 40 children between the ages of 10 and 13 years. 20 of the children had no prior musical training, other than in their school curriculum, whilst the other 20 had been playing an instrument for at least two years, practiced for two hours per-week and played in an orchestra or ensemble.

The children’s working memory and attention was tested using the ‘bimodal attention and working memory task’. During the task, the children were presented with a pair of bimodal stimuli, in this case auditory and visual, and were told to only pay attention to only one of the stimuli at a time or both at the same time. The stimuli were then tested afterwards with a memory task to confirm attention allocation.

Whilst taking part in the task, the children’s brain activity was analysed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which looks for changes in blood flow in the brain.

The musicians had an overall better performance on both memory tasks across the attention conditions. The results of the study found two mechanisms in the brain which appear to underlie the enhanced performance in musically trained children:

1. The first mechanism supports more domain-general attention mechanisms. This refers to how sensory information (like a sound or light) is processed in the brain. Here, the fronto-parietal control network was most active. This network is responsible for executive functioning, goal-orientated and cognitively demanding tasks.

2. The second mechanism supports more domain-specific auditory mechanisms. This refers to how auditory information (sound) specifically is processed in the brain. The active brain regions include: the inferior frontal gyrus and the supramarginal gyrus, which are both part of a ‘phonological loop’. This loop is a working-memory system which is responsible for processing auditory signals.

Inferior Frontal Gyrus. Source: WikiMedia Commons.
Supramarginal Gyrus. Source: WikiMedia Commons.

These mechanisms appear to be what improved test results in the musically trained children when compared with the control group! The authors of the study believe that their results could be useful to promote musical training intervention for children with ADHD. Therefore, they are intending to carry out a longitudinal study to investigate this.   

Original Study Source: Leonie Kausal, et al. (October 2020). “Neural Dynamics of Improved Bimodal Attention and Working Memory in Musically Trained Children”. Frontiers in Neuroscience.


Featured Image Source: TuneTown Music Gear. Wells, Maine.

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