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Kids' Musical Talents May Be Improving their Brain Power

Dec 24, 2014 10:46 AM EST

Around the holidays, your children may be learning to play the "Nutcracker" or "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" just for fun, but new research shows that kids' musical talents may in fact be improving their brain power.

Musical training, whether it's playing the violin or studying piano, might also help kids focus their attention, control their emotions and diminish their anxiety, according to new findings published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Previous research by psychiatry professor James Hudziak, who led the study, has shown that as children age, the cortex - or outer layer of the brain - changes in thickness. MRI data indicated that cortical thickening or thinning in specific areas of the brain resulted in anxiety and depression, attention problems, aggression and behavior control issues even in healthy kids (those without a mental illness).

So Hudziak and his colleagues wanted to find out if a constructive activity, such as music playing, could affect kids' cortexes in a positive way. The University of Vermont researcher and his team call their study "the largest investigation of the association between playing a musical instrument and brain development," according to a news release.

Based on Hudziak's model, called The Vermont Family Based Approach, which is based on the idea that a young person's environment shapes their psychological health - they unsurprisingly found that musical training did indeed alter certain motor areas of the brain.

For example, music practice influenced thickness in the part of the cortex that relates to "executive functioning, including working memory, attentional control, as well as organization and planning for the future," the authors wrote.

This instrument-playing background also seems to be associated with cortical thickness in "brain areas that play a critical role in inhibitory control, as well as aspects of emotion processing," they added.

While these findings prove to be positive, the researchers note that in the United States 75 percent of high school students "rarely or never" take music lessons.

"Such statistics, when taken in the context of our present neuroimaging results," the authors write, "underscore the vital importance of finding new and innovative ways to make music training more widely available to youths, beginning in childhood."

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