hearing loss

Benefits of music training on the brain

August, 2010

A comprehensive review of the recent research into the benefits of music training on learning and the brain concludes music training in schools should be strongly supported.

A review of the many recent studies into the effects of music training on the nervous system strongly suggests that the neural connections made during musical training also prime the brain for other aspects of human communication, including learning. It’s suggested that actively engaging with musical sounds not only helps the plasticity of the brain, but also helps provide a stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns. Playing an instrument primes the brain to choose what is relevant in a complex situation. Moreover, it trains the brain to make associations between complex sounds and their meaning — something that is also important in language. Music training can provide skills that enable speech to be better heard against background noise — useful not only for those with some hearing impairment (it’s a common difficulty as we get older), but also for children with learning disorders. The review concludes that music training tones the brain for auditory fitness, analogous to the way physical exercise tones the body, and that the evidence justifies serious investment in music training in schools.

Reference: 

[1678] Kraus, N., & Chandrasekaran B.
(2010).  Music training for the development of auditory skills.
Nat Rev Neurosci. 11(8), 599 - 605.

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Brain training reverses age-related cognitive decline

August, 2010

A month's training in sound discrimination reversed normal age-related cognitive decline in the auditory cortex in old rats.

A rat study demonstrates how specialized brain training can reverse many aspects of normal age-related cognitive decline in targeted areas. The month-long study involved daily hour-long sessions of intense auditory training targeted at the primary auditory cortex. The rats were rewarded for picking out the oddball note in a rapid sequence of six notes (five of them of the same pitch). The difference between the oddball note and the others became progressively smaller. After the training, aged rats showed substantial reversal of their previously degraded ability to process sound. Moreover, measures of neuron health in the auditory cortex had returned to nearly youthful levels.

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Changing sounds are key to understanding speech

July, 2010

New research reveals that understanding spoken speech relies on sound changes, making "low" vowels most important and "stop" consonants least important.

As I get older, the question of how we perceive speech becomes more interesting (people don’t talk as clearly as they used to!). So I was intrigued by this latest research that reveals that it is not so much a question of whether consonants or vowels are more important (although consonants do appear to be less important than vowels — the opposite of what is true for written language), but a matter of transitions. It’s all a matter of the very brief changes across amplitude and frequency that make sound-handling neurons fire more often and easily — after all, as we know from other perception research, we’re designed to recognize/respond to change. Most likely to rate as high-change sounds are "low" vowels, sounds like "ah" in "father" or "top" that draw the jaw and tongue downward. Least likely to cause much change are "stop" consonants like "t" and "d" in "today." The physical measure of change corresponds closely with the linguistic construct of sonority (or vowel-likeness).

Reference: 

[1632] Stilp, C. E., & Kluender K. R.
(2010).  Cochlea-scaled entropy, not consonants, vowels, or time, best predicts speech intelligibility.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107(27), 12387 - 12392.

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