Musicianship in early life is associated with pervasive changes in brain function and enhanced speech-language skills. Whether these neuroplastic benefits extend to older individuals more susceptible to cognitive decline, and for whom plasticity is weaker, has yet to be established. Here, we show that musical training offsets declines in auditory brain processing that accompanying normal aging in humans, preserving robust speech recognition late into life. We recorded both brainstem and cortical neuroelectric responses in older adults with and without modest musical training as they classified speech sounds along an acoustic-phonetic continuum. Results reveal higher temporal precision in speech-evoked responses at multiple levels of the auditory system in older musicians who were also better at differentiating phonetic categories. Older musicians also showed a closer correspondence between neural activity and perceptual performance. This suggests that musicianship strengthens brain-behavior coupling in the aging auditory system. Last, "neurometric" functions derived from unsupervised classification of neural activity established that early cortical responses could accurately predict listeners' psychometric speech identification and, more critically, that neurometric profiles were organized more categorically in older musicians. We propose that musicianship offsets age-related declines in speech listening by refining the hierarchical interplay between subcortical/cortical auditory brain representations, allowing more behaviorally relevant information carried within the neural code, and supplying more faithful templates to the brain mechanisms subserving phonetic computations. Our findings imply that robust neuroplasticity conferred by musical training is not restricted by age and may serve as an effective means to bolster speech listening skills that decline across the lifespan.
Keywords: auditory event-related brain potentials (ERPs); brainstem frequency-following response (FFR); categorical speech perception; cognitive aging; experience-dependent plasticity; music-to-language transfer effects.
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