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Learn music, new language to make your brain more efficient

In the study published in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, individuals with either a musical or bilingual background activated different brain networks and showed less brain activity, researchers said.

“These findings show that musicians and bilinguals require less effort to perform the same task, which could also protect them against cognitive decline and delay the onset of dementia,” said Claude Alain, a senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute in Canada.

“Our results also demonstrated that a person’s experiences, whether it’s learning how to play a musical instrument or another language, can shape how the brain functions and which networks are used,” said Alain.

Musicians and people who are bilingual have long been shown to have a better working memory, the ability to keep things in mind, such as remembering a phone number, a list of instructions or doing mental math. However, it remains a mystery as to why this is the case. This is the first brain imaging study looking at all three groups and this work uncovers how these activities boost different parts of the brain among individuals, said Alain.

The study looked at the brains of 41 young adults between the ages of 19-35, who fit into three categories: English-speaking non-musicians, musicians who only spoke English and bilinguals who didn’t play a musical instrument. Brain imagery was captured for each participant as they were asked to identify whether the sound they heard was the same type as the previous one.

Sounds from musical instruments, the environment and humans were among those used in the study. Participants were also asked to identify if what they heard was coming from the same direction as the previous noise. Musicians remembered the type of sound faster than individuals in the other groups, while bilinguals and musicians performed better on the location task.

Bilinguals performed at about the same level as individuals who spoke only one language and didn’t play a musical instrument on remembering the sound, but they still showed less brain activity when completing the task.

“People who speak two languages may take longer to process sounds since the information is run through two language libraries rather than just one,” said Alain, who is also an associate professor at the University of Toronto in Canada. “During this task, the brains of bilinguals showed greater signs of activation in areas that are known for speech comprehension, supporting this theory,” he said. As next steps, researchers are exploring the impact of art and musical training among adults to see if this leads to changes in brain function. 

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