Music training at home improves elderly people’s short-term memory for faces, according to a controlled study

Findings from a controlled experiment suggest that music training can lead to cognitive benefits that extend to nonmusical tasks. After eight weeks of music rhythm training, the elderly showed significant improvements in short-term memory on a face recognition task. The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

When a person plays a musical instrument, their brain is involved in all kinds of mental processes. A notable example is that playing music engages short-term memory, which helps musicians remember and retain musical sequences. Not surprisingly, studies show that music training can improve short-term memory.

But study author Theodore P. Zanto and his team say it’s unclear whether these short-term memory improvements translate to tasks outside of musical performance. For example, do musicians show enhanced memory for tonal structures, but do they also exhibit stronger visual and verbal short-term memory? And if they do, what is the neural mechanism that allows this transfer to occur? Zanto and his colleagues conducted a controlled experiment to try to answer these questions.

“I have spent years studying how ‘healthy’ aging is associated with numerous cognitive declines. Now I’m more interested in ways that could help reverse this process – or at least slow the decline,” explained Zanto, an associate professor at the Weill Institute for Neurosciences and director of neuroscience at Neuroscape.

The researchers recruited a sample of 47 non-musicians to participate in their experiment. To avoid ceiling effects, the researchers recruited older adults between the ages of 60 and 79—an age group known to experience declines in cognitive abilities. Participants were randomly assigned to receive music rhythm training (experimental condition) or word search training (control condition). Both training sessions lasted eight weeks.

The music training included a video game that challenged participants’ rhythm and timing. Using a tablet screen, participants learned to tap a steady beat in harmony with a musical beat. Word search training involved playing an increasingly difficult word search game on an iPad. Specifically, music training challenged working memory and visual tracking, whereas control training did not.

Before and after training, participants completed a task to assess visual short-term memory while their brain activity was measured via electroencephalography (EEG). The researchers then compared the participants’ results before and after training.

The results revealed that the music training group showed improvements in short-term memory encoding and maintenance after training, while the control group did not. This specifically related to a part of the task that required participants to recognize recently seen faces. The EEG data also revealed that these changes were accompanied by increased activity in the superior parietal lobe.

“Learning to play an instrument is one of many ways it can help promote cognitive function throughout life,” Zanto told PsyPost. “By engaging in cognitively complex (and often difficult) tasks, you strengthen these brain networks – which not only improves your ability to do that task, but will help you do other tasks that rely on those networks of the brain”.

Interestingly, music training did not affect temporal attention or sensory processing, even though the training challenged these skills. According to the study authors, this suggests that training “selectively taxes short-term memory resources within the superior parietal lobe to facilitate the encoding and retention of visual short-term memory.”

Importantly, music training did not place demands on short-term memory for faces. This suggests that training led to cognitive improvements that transferred to improvements in visual memory for faces, possibly through shared short-term memory resources. This is supported by the fact that the improvements were located in the superior parietal lobe, an area of ​​the brain involved in visual aspects of musical performance as well as visual working memory in other tasks.

“I’m a little surprised that the neural activity in anticipation of a face didn’t change,” Zanto said. “Since rhythm training taxes your ability to predict future events (like the beat), I thought that the ability to predict the onset of faces would also improve.”

The authors discuss the real-world implications of their findings. After just two months, elderly non-musicians were able to improve their short-term memory for faces with a home digital training program. However, “it remains to be seen whether improvements in short-term memory can be seen in a healthy young adult population in such a short period of time,” the researchers noted, “as their short-term memory ability typically has less room for improvement.”

“It’s a relatively small sample of people – so larger groups will be needed to confirm these findings,” Zanto explained. “Also, the participants underwent a relatively short training period (two months). Future research will be needed to examine whether the small improvements in memory (~4% increase) would be enhanced with longer training duration.”

“We’ve created a new version of tempo training that we call Consistency,” he added. “It is more user-friendly, including for children. We recently tested Coherence in third graders and have just submitted a manuscript describing how rhythm training improves timing skills, which results in enhanced reading fluency. Hopefully this will be published soon. Beyond digital interventions, I also use non-invasive neurostimulation techniques to promote healthy brain function.”

The study, “How Music Rhythm Training Improves Short-Term Memory for Faces,” was authored by Theodore P. Zanto, Vinith Johnson, Avery Ostrand and Adam Gazzaley.

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