Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Music Ability Helps Reading

Illustration by Izar Cohen
ANN LUKITS/The Wall Street Journal

Playing a musical instrument from a young age appears to create new pathways in the brain that process written words and letters and may help children with reading disorders such as dyslexia, says a study in the journal Neuropsychologia. Musicians generally outperform nonmusicians on cognitive tests, but little is known about the effects of reading musical notes on the brain's circuitry as it relates to reading, researchers said.

Playing a musical instrument from a young age appears to create new pathways in the brain that process written words and letters and may help children with reading disorders such as dyslexia.

Fifteen professional musicians who had played an instrument since childhood and 15 control subjects who couldn't read music participated in two experiments in Milan. Subjects were 26 to 31 years old. In one experiment, subjects pressed a button if they recognized the notes E, F, G, A and B (mi, fa, sol, la and ti on the musical scale) which randomly appeared in 300 short musical scores flashed on a computer screen. In the other experiment, they pressed the button when they spotted the letters B, G, L, M and S in 300 randomly selected words. An electroencephalogram (EEG) measured brain-wave activity.

Musicians recognized notes significantly faster than controls and letters only slightly faster. Musicians made fewer errors in both experiments. But EEG results showed striking differences. In musicians, reading musical notes and words activated both the left and right sides of the brain, whereas in controls, only the left side responded to words and the right side to notes. Language is normally a left-brain function and music a right-brain function. The involvement of the right side in a typically left-sided function probably resulted from reading music, researchers said. Musical training may be quite helpful for children struggling to read, they said.

Caveat: The differences in brain activation may be due to the controls' inability to read musical scores, researchers said. Spatial abilities may differ between the two groups due to musicians' practice of reading music, they said. The study was small.

Title: Musical expertise affects neural bases of letter recognition

• Fatal arrhythmias: Pneumonia infections may trigger new and potentially fatal heart arrhythmias in older hospitalized patients, says a study in the American Journal of Medicine. More than 1.2 million Americans are admitted to the hospital with pneumonia every year and 3.4% die from the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It isn't known if cardiac arrhythmias are a factor.

Texas researchers used a Veterans Affairs database to identify 32,689 patients, mainly men, with no previous cardiac arrhythmia who were hospitalized for pneumonia from 2001 to 2007. The average age was 75. New cardiac arrhythmias developed in 12% of patients within 90 days of admission, about two-thirds of which were cases of atrial fibrillation, a rapid, irregular heartbeat. Some 31% of the arrhythmia patients died within that period, compared with 21% of those without arrhythmia.

Arrhythmias tended to develop in older, sicker white patients. The risk was reduced in those taking beta-blocker drugs for hypertension. Of patients with arrhythmia, 17% required intensive-care treatment compared with 11% of non-arrhythmia patients. Pneumonia infections may have an inflammatory effect on heart muscle and coronary arteries that leads to the development of acute arrhythmias, researchers said.

Caveat: The arrhythmias' duration wasn't known, making it difficult to determine if they contributed directly to the death rate, researchers said. The findings may not apply to women and younger patients.

Title: Pneumonia: An Arrhythmogenic Disease?

• Active commuters: Students who walk, run or bike to school have a 52% greater likelihood of getting injured than if they traveled by car, bus or other mode of transportation, says a study in Injury Prevention.

Researchers at Queen's University in Ontario used data on nearly 21,000 Canadian students, ages 11 to 15, who participated in a 2009-2010 Canadian national health survey. The students were divided into three groups: those who traveled by bus, car, or other type of public transportation; those who biked less than five minutes or walked less than 15 minutes; those who biked or walked for greater lengths of time.

Over 12 months, 183 boys and 174 girls were injured during the commute. More than two-thirds of injuries occurred on bikes and 31% from running or walking. Medical treatment was required in 45% of cases. Students traveling a mile or longer were injured more often than those traveling less than a mile. Children ages 11 and 12 were injured almost twice as often as 13-to-15-year-olds.

Caveat: Students may have incorrectly reported the cause of their injuries, researchers said. Information about bicycle-helmet laws, bike paths, pedestrian crossings or the timing of the student injuries wasn't available.

Title: Active transportation to school in Canadian youth: should injury be a concern?

• Allergy benefits: A new study suggests there may be a healthy side effect to having allergies, especially for men. The research, reported in the online journal PLoS One, found that people with asthma, nasal allergies and other common allergic conditions had a significantly reduced risk of developing head and neck cancers.

Researchers in Taiwan reported on a hospital study from 2010 to 2012 that compared the prevalence of asthma, allergic rhinitis, and skin, food and drug allergies in 252 Taiwanese patients with head and neck cancers and 236 cancer-free controls. Allergies affected 35% of cancer patients and 57% of controls; rhinitis, or nasal allergy, was the most common, affecting 20% of cancer patients and 41% of controls.

Having any allergy was associated with a 59% reduced risk of any type of head and neck cancer, the study found. Risk was significantly reduced for men but not women.

The researchers also reported on a meta-analysis of 14 studies from 1975 to 2012, which pooled data on 742,524 subjects in seven countries, including the Taiwan study patients. The meta-analysis showed that people with allergies had a 24% reduced risk of developing head and neck cancers. Again, risk was significantly reduced only in men.

Head and neck cancers, which occur in the mouth and throat, affect three times as many men as women, according to the American Cancer Society. Risk factors include smoking, alcohol, human papillomavirus infection, sun exposure and chewing tobacco or similar substances. In the studies, subjects with cancer had more risk factors than controls.

Allergies usually result from an overactive immune function that may detect and eradicate malignant cells from the body, researchers said. Allergy proteins known as IgE could also have anti-tumor properties, they said. The gender differences may be due to women's greater susceptibility to the carcinogens in tobacco, they said.

Caveat: Five studies in the meta-analysis used self-reported allergy data, which may contain inaccuracies, researchers said.

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