Functional and structural neural correlates of attention and memory during bimodal (auditory/visual) stimuli in children who play a musical instrument

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The ability to focus on one or more stimuli at the same time is a crucial capacity that allows us to cope successfully with our daily life. Since playing a musical instrument demands to pay attention to lots of events at the same time, we hypothesized that this activity trains these types of attention, and that the neural networks underlying these skills would be boosted in children who regularly learn and play a musical instrument. To test our hypothesis, we asked children aged 10 to 13 with and without musical training to complete a selective and divided attention task while their brain activity was measured with fMRI. The task presented a pair of bimodal stimuli (melody and figure) to the participants and they were asked to pay attention only to the auditory, only to the visual, or to both stimuli at the same time. Both stimuli were tested with a same/different memory task after presentation in order to confirm attention allocation. Our study showed that both groups were able to follow the attention instructions, showing a better performance on the memory tasks of the items that they were instructed to attend, but musically trained children had an overall better performance on both memory tasks. This difference between groups in overall performance was guided by higher activation in musicians of the fronto-parietal attention network and the thalamus among others in the encoding phase of in the three attention conditions. In addition, we found that the better performance of musically trained children on the auditory memory tasks was not only due to improved allocation of attentional resources, but also due to facilitated encoding of auditory stimuli given by the years of training that depended on the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and left supramarginal gyrus (SMG), which are part of the phonological loop. Therefore, our results strongly suggest that two distinct neural mechanisms played a role in the better performance of musically trained children on our task. Based on our results, we propose a mechanistic framework that allows to interpret the observations that have been made on the impact of musical training across lifespan. Our results could be relevant for educational and public health policies, and they also suggest that musical training could be used as a non-pharmacological intervention strategy for children with attentional problems.
Tesis (Ph.D. in Neuroscience)--Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2018