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How sending your kids to music class can help prevent autism
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Children who take music lessons develop brain connections that could treat autism and ADHD in the future. - photo by Herb Scribner
Children who take music lessons develop brain connections, a finding that could be used in treating autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the future, according to a new study from the Radiological Society of North America.

The study had researchers analyze 23 healthy children from 5 to 6 years old who were right-handed and had no sensory, perception or neurological disorders, according to a press release.

The children went under a medical evaluation before and after musical training. Researchers used the diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) technique, which is an advanced form of MRI that shows where the structural changes in the brain appear, to see how childrens brains developed.

The childrens brains apparently showed positive signs.

"Experiencing music at an early age can contribute to better brain development, optimizing the creation and establishment of neural networks, and stimulating the existing brain tracts," said Pilar Dies-Suarez, M.D., chief radiologist at the Hospital Infantil de Mxico Federico Gmez in Mexico City, according to the release.

In general, brains contain nerve fibers that connect various regions of the brain. The DTI measurement takes a count of fractional anisotropy (FA), which is the measure of the movement of molecules near the axons.

Most brains show uniform and simple levels of FA without much movement. Previous research has connected less FA and less movement from FA in the brain to neurological disorders, such as autism.

But, as this study suggested, theres an increase in FA movement when children take music lessons. The study found that children who had musical instruction for nine months saw an increase in their FA and axon fiber length, creating better connections in the brain.

"When a child receives musical instruction, their brains are asked to complete certain tasks," Dies-Suarez said. "These tasks involve hearing, motor, cognition, emotion and social skills, which seem to activate these different brain areas. These results may have occurred because of the need to create more connections between the two hemispheres of the brain."

Researchers hope they can use this information to find different ways to help the brain make connections, which can help children with autism, ADHD and other neurological disorders develop in the future, according to the press release.

But this finding doesnt mean parents should immediately head out to their local music shop to sign up their children for music class. A 2014 study from Northwestern University found that children only receive the cognitive benefits of music if they pay attention and actively engage in their lessons, according to Time.

Even in a group of highly motivated students, small variations in music engagement attendance and class participation predicted the strength of neural processing after music training, said Nina Kraus, director of Northwesterns Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, according to Time.

The study, in which researchers hooked electrode wires to children playing music, also found that children who play instruments in their classes have improved brain processing over children who just attend a music appreciation group. So its not just listening to music that helps, its engaging with it.

We dont see these kinds of biological changes in people who are just listening to music, who are not playing an instrument, said Kraus. I like to give the analogy that youre not going to become physically fit just by watching sports.

Similarly, a 2016 study from the University of Southern California found that childrens brains will grow faster when they train with music. The five-year study found music lessons can improve a childs maturation in his or her auditory pathway, which develops the ability to listen and understand the human language. It also makes a child's literary skills more efficient.

The study, which measured the behavior of a group of 37 children from underprivileged neighborhoods in Los Angeles, found that the 13 youngsters who went to music classes had matured faster in their auditory cortexes, developing their language skills.

The auditory system is stimulated by music, said Assal Habibi, the studys lead author. This system is also engaged in general sound processing that is fundamental to language development, reading skills and successful communication.

So whats the best time to get your child started with music lessons? Parents can provide a musical environment starting early in a child's life that can help the child grow, according to PBS. When children are 3, parents can start introducing them to formal lessons, where they begin identifying beats and sounds, not necessarily playing an instrument.

This will allow children who are 5 to take music lessons with a more practiced ear, giving them a leg up in learning more about an instrument, PBS reported.

By age 10, children can start physically using an instrument, according to PBS.

Like riding a bike or learning a language, these skills can be learned later in life, but they will never be natural in the way that is so important for fluid musical performance, wrote Robert A. Cutietta, dean of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, for PBS.
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