A recent study conducted by a child psychiatric team assessed associations that may exist between playing a musical instrument and cortical thickening in the brain.
The outer layer of the brain (cortex) changes in thickness as a child grows and is found to be associated with altered mental states.
Professor of psychiatry Dr. James Hudziak and colleagues decided to investigate whether positive stimulation in the form of musical training would have any effect on cortical thickening.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, cortical thickening and thinning in particular areas of the brain had been demonstrated by the team to indicate mental conditions such as anxiety, depression and attention problems, even in children who were undiagnosed with any form of mental disorder.
The team found that learning a musical instrument could help children to reduce feelings of anxiety, gain a greater control of their emotions and give a stronger focus to their attention.
A total of 232 children, aged 6-18, participated in the study and were recruited from National Institutes of Health (NIH) MRI Study of Normal Brain Development.
Each participant underwent MRI scanning and behavioral testing on up to three different occasions with a 2-year interval between each one.
The researchers observed a number of changes associated with musical training in various areas of the brain. As predicted, the motor areas were altered, as playing an instrument necessitates the control and co-ordination of movement.
Also, musical training was associated with cortical thickening in areas of the brain related to executive functioning, inhibitory control and the processing of emotions. These include working memory, control of attention, as well as organization and planning for the future.
The age during which the instrument was played had an association with cortical thickness than the number of years spent in musical training. The study's findings were relatively unaffected when adjusted for IQ and handedness.
The findings of the study support The Vermont Family Based Approach - a model constructed by Dr. Hudziak in order to establish that every aspect of a young person's environment, from the people they interact with to the activities they are involved with, contributes to their psychological health.
The findings suggest that there is a great scope for musical training to be used in the treatment of psychological disorders among children. "Music is a critical component in my model," says Dr. Hudziak. "We treat things that result from negative things, but we never try to use positive things as treatment."