Musical training heightens auditory brainstem function during sensitive periods in development

Erika Skoe, Nina Kraus*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

71 Scopus citations


Experience has a profound influence on how sound is processed in the brain. Yet little is known about how enriched experiences interact with developmental processes to shape neural processing of sound. We examine this question as part of a large cross-sectional study of auditory brainstem development involving more than 700 participants, 213 of whom were classified as musicians. We hypothesized that experience-dependent processes piggyback on developmental processes, resulting in a waxing-and-waning effect of experience that tracks with the undulating developmental baseline. This hypothesis led to the prediction that experience-dependent plasticity would be amplified during periods when developmental changes are underway (i.e., early and later in life) and that the peak in experience-dependent plasticity would coincide with the developmental apex for each subcomponent of the auditory brainstem response (ABR). Consistent with our predictions, we reveal that musicians have heightened response features at distinctive times in the life span that coincide with periods of developmental change. The effect of musicianship is also quite specific: we find that only select components of auditory brainstem activity are affected, with musicians having heightened function for onset latency, high-frequency phase-locking, and response consistency, and with little effect observed for other measures, including lower-frequency phase-locking and non-stimulus-related activity. By showing that musicianship imparts a neural signature that is especially evident during childhood and old age, our findings reinforce the idea that the nervous system's response to sound is "chiseled" by how a person interacts with his specific auditory environment, with the effect of the environment wielding its greatest influence during certain privileged windows of development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberArticle 622
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberSEP
StatePublished - 2013


  • Auditory brainstem response
  • Development
  • Experience-dependent plasticity
  • Musical training
  • Sensitive periods

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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