The perception and neural representation of acoustically similar speech sounds underlie language development. Music training hones the perception of minute acoustic differences that distinguish sounds; this training may generalize to speech processing given that adult musicians have enhanced neural differentiation of similar speech syllables compared with nonmusicians. Here, we asked whether this neural advantage in musicians is present early in life by assessing musically trained and untrained children as young as age 3. We assessed auditory brainstem responses to the speech syllables /ba/ and /ga/ as well as auditory and visual cognitive abilities in musicians and nonmusicians across 3 developmental time-points: preschoolers, school-aged children, and adults. Cross-phase analyses objectively measured the degree to which subcortical responses differed to these speech syllables in musicians and nonmusicians for each age group. Results reveal that musicians exhibit enhanced neural differentiation of stop consonants early in life and with as little as a few years of training. Furthermore, the extent of subcortical stop consonant distinction correlates with auditory-specific cognitive abilities (i.e., auditory working memory and attention). Results are interpreted according to a corticofugal framework for auditory learning in which subcortical processing enhancements are engendered by strengthened cognitive control over auditory function in musicians.

Cereb. Cortex-2014-Strait-2512-21