But doctor will I be able to play the piano?

Remember that old chestnut about the guy who is recovering from hand surgery and asks his doctor if he’ll be able to play the piano. The doctor says yes.  The man replies, “great, ‘cause I couldn’t play before.”  Groan!!

I met an amazing Baycrest research scientist a few weeks ago, Dr. Takako Fujioka.  This lovely young woman was a child prodigy playing piano and cello from the age of 4 and had a future as a concert musician, but chose instead to focus on engineering when she reached university.  Somewhere along the line, she switched gears and did her PhD. in physiology and now researches how music and playing a musical instrument impacts the way we use our brains.

Here’s what I learned during my meeting with Dr. F.   I’m sure this summary doesn’t do her justice, but I want to whet your appetite with this intriguing research.  A little technical background – stuff I didn’t know.  Brain waves actually give off electrical sparks and signals.  At Baycrest we have one of only 5 MEG (magneto encephalography) machines in all of Canada.  Think of the MEG doing for the brain what an EEG does for the heart which is monitoring heart beats and rhythms – but with one giant difference.  The MEG requires no electrodes or gels to transmit the signals – it works like a radio picking up our brain waves.  Pretty cool.

So what Dr. F and her team did was to look at the visible differences between the brains of the musically trained and untrained.  Using children as the subjects for this study, they took one group who were learning to play an instrument and one that was not and studied their brain development at four different intervals over the course of a year.  The musical group showed accelerated brain development.

With this information under her belt, Dr. F. is now involved in a brain fitness program here at Baycrest.  Using older adults (60+), she has enrolled them in what she playfully refers to as her “Piano Boot Camp.”  Her study investigates what enhanced sensory motor integration looks like through MEG imagery and whether it corroborates her hypothesis that increased perception/action/auditory use of the brain actually translates to more effective use of our brain.  She explained this to me as follows: learning to play an instrument makes you think more vigorously.  You have to engage in the activity of practicing which requires you to pay attention and understand when you’ve made a mistake, go back and redo the activity until you get it right.  You’re learning to read music at the same time as making music – it is a more dynamic form of learning.  It is teaching your brain to plan according to the activity, gives you an enhanced ability to concentrate, a greater ability to switch from one task to another – all in all, a lot of different types of activities to boost your brain control.  And even more importantly – it’s never too late to engage in this kind of brain exercise.

At this juncture I of course had to ask about playing piano vs. my obsession with crossword puzzles and Sudoku.  Sadly – it wasn’t the answer I was looking for.  Apparently because these puzzles are singular activities and require no social interaction, the benefit is pretty limited.

But the good news is that we have Dr. F. and her team and they are constantly looking at ways to improve the human condition.  Maybe I’ll meet with her again soon and get filled in on her research with Stroke patients and recovery of motor skills through music therapy.

For more details about the research done with those two groups of children, go to  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/09/060920093024.htm

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