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Learning an instrument can hold off effects of ageing on the brain, say scientists

Learning an instrument can hold off effects of ageing on the brain, say scientists
12th January 2017

Learning to play an instrument could help to stop the signs of ageing in the brain, a new study has found. Those who are able to play the piano, guitar or drums have better reaction times as they get older in comparison to non-musicians.

This is according to research carried out by scientists at the University of Montreal in Canada, who investigated the negative effects of ageing on the brain and how to stop them. While it has long been established that alertness can dwindle as people get older, gaining a skill could help to counteract it.

In the study, reaction times were monitored in 16 musicians and 19 people who do not play instruments. The musicians that were chosen had begun to play between the ages of three and ten and had been taught in the discipline for at least seven years.

The composition of artists was made up of eight pianists, three violinists, two percussionists, one double bassist, one harpist and one viola player. All of them bar one were proficient in at least another instrument, if not more.

During the experiment, the subjects sat in a well-lit room without noise distractions and placed one hand on a computer mouse and the index finger of the other on a vibro-tactile device. This small box vibrates intermittently and they were asked to click the mouse when it vibrated or when they heard a sound from the speakers.

Responses to audio stimulation, tactile stimulation and audio-tactile stimulation, where both things happen at the same time, were recorded. Musicians were found to have faster reaction times to all three types in the study, which was published in the journal Brain and Cognition.

Simon Landry, author of the study, said: “The more we know about the impact of music on really basic sensory processes, the more we can apply musical training to individuals who might have slower reaction times.

“As people get older, for example, we know their reaction times get slower. So if we know that playing a musical instrument increases reaction times, then maybe playing an instrument will be helpful for them.”

It would be interesting to see if similar results could be achieved in groups of people who have learnt other skills over their lifetimes, such as painting or drawing. It is important for the elderly to continue their passions for as long as possible, not just to keep the brain agile, but to retain a sense of purpose and joy.