The authors of this study found that learning to play a musical instrument during childhood for a relatively short period (approximately 3 years) may result in neural changes that persist in adulthood after auditory training has ceased (approximately 7 years later). Specifically, more robust brainstem responses to sound were observed compared to controls who never participated in music lessons. The magnitude of the response correlated with how recently training ceased.
The authors noted that previous studies have reported that passive exposure to an enriched auditory environment can enhance neural activity in both young and old laboratory animals. However, these neural changes are reversed within a few weeks after animals are returned to standard laboratory conditions. The authors suggest that the more long-lasting effects in their human subjects may be related to the non-passive enriched sensory experience of learning to play a musical instrument. This is a useful area for further investigation.
These findings have implications for education policy and the development of effective auditory training programs.
Skoe E and Kraus N: A little goes a long way: how the adult brain is shaped by musical training in childhood. J. Neuroscience 32(34): 11507-11510 (2012).