According to a recent study from the University of Vermont College of Medicine, learning to play the violin or piano might help kids’ brains by giving them some added benefits in key behavioral areas of the cortex. A team specializing in child psychiatry published a research article in the September 3, 2014 online edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, which showed that musical training might help kids focus their attention, control their emotions, and diminish their anxiety.

James Hudziak, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, worked with colleague Matthew Albaugh, PhD, and graduate research assistant Eileen Crehan on a study they believe is one of the largest investigations of the association between playing a musical instrument and brain development. The research reportedly continues Hudziak’s work with the National Institutes of Health Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Study of Normal Brain Development. According to the research article, the team used the previous study’s database to analyze the brain scans of 232 children ages 6 to 18.

According to the researchers, as children age, the cortex—the outer layer of the brain—changes in thickness. In previous analysis of MRI data, Hudziak and his team had discovered 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 kids without a diagnosis of a disorder or mental illness. With the new study, Hudziak wanted to investigate whether a positive activity, such as music training, might influence those indicators in the cortex of kids’ brains.

The new study supports The Vermont Family Based Approach, a model Hudziak created to establish that the entirety of a young person’s environment—parents, teachers, friends, pets, extracurricular activities—contributes to his or her psychological health. Hudziak believes that music is a critical component in this model.

The researchers found that music playing altered the motor areas of the brain, because the activity requires control and coordination of movement. They noted changes in the behavior-regulating areas of the brain related to things like memory, attentional control, organization, and planning. According to the researchers, 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 findings support Hudziak’s hypothesis that a violin might help a child battle psychological disorders even better than treatment with medication.

“We treat things that result from negative things, but we never try to use positive things as treatment,” said Hudziak.

However, utilizing musical training as an alternative treatment for psychological disorders may be challenging to accomplish. According to the study’s authors, research from the US Department of Education indicates that 75% of US 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 underscore the vital importance of finding new and innovative ways to make music training more widely available to youths, beginning in childhood,” said the authors.

Source: University of Vermont College of Medicine

Neurobiologist Nina Kraus, PhD, and Samira Anderson, AuD, PhD, published an article regarding the benefits of musical training in the August 2014 edition of The Hearing Review, a special issue about music, hearing, and the brain, which was guest-edited by Marshall Chasin, AuD, and Douglas Beck, AuD.

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