Posted on Jan 27, 2016, 6 a.m.
Musical training in your younger years may prevent a decline in speech listening skills in later life.
The ability to comprehend speech often becomes diminished with age, as previous studies suggest this may be caused by a weakening of the brain's central auditory system, responsible for a person’s ability to parse, sequence and identify acoustic features of speech. Gavin Bidelman, from the University of Memphis (Tennessee, USA), and colleagues enrolled 20 healthy older adults (ages 55 to 75 years) – 10 of whom were musicians, in a study in which each subject put on headphones in a controlled lab setting and was asked to identify random speech sounds. Some of the sounds were single vowel sounds, others more ambiguous as a mix of two sounds that posed a greater challenge to their auditory processing abilities for categorizing the speech sound correctly. During the testing cycles, researchers recorded the neural activity of each participant using electroencephalography (EEG). This brain imaging technique measures to a very precise degree the exact timing of the electrical activity which occurs in the brain in response to external stimuli. This is displayed as waveforms on a computer screen. Researchers use this technology to study how the brain makes sense of our complex acoustical environment and how aging impacts cognitive functions. The researchers observed that the older musicians' brain responses showed more efficient and robust neurophysiological processing of speech at multiple tiers of auditory processing. Observing that: “older musicians also showed a closer correspondence between neural activity and perceptual performance,” the study authors submit that: “we show that musical training offsets declines in auditory brain processing that accompanying normal aging in humans, preserving robust speech recognition late into life.”
Bidelman GM, Alain C. “Musical training orchestrates coordinated neuroplasticity in auditory brainstem and cortex to counteract age-related declines in categorical vowel perception.” J Neurosci. 2015 Jan 21;35(3):1240-9.