Moderators of Cognitive Processing Speed Changes Following a Piano Training Intervention in Older Adults at Risk for Dementia

Jade Dandurand, University of Georgia, Athens, United States
Kassidy Hogan, University of Georgia, Athens, United States
Stephen Correia, University of Georgia, Athens, United States
Lawrence Sweet, University of Georgia, Athens, United States
Jenay Beer, University of Georgia, Athens, United States
Lisa Renzi-Hammond, University of Georgia, Athens, United States


An extant literature base supports that music learning as a form of cognitive training can improve or maintain aspects of cognitive function – particularly processing speed, inhibition, and attention – in older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias (ADRD). A question which has not been addressed is whether there is a core cognitive ability such as cognitive flexibility that underlies change in more specific cognitive performance (e.g., cognitive processing speed). Using a longitudinal, within-subjects design, the present study examined the effects of a musical training intervention (piano lessons) on cognitive processing speed performance and examined baseline levels of cognitive flexibility and an atomistic measure of visual processing speed [i.e., critical flicker fusion frequency threshold (CFF)] as potential moderators of expected training-related improvements.

Participants and Methods:

The sample included 41 older adults (M age = 72.71± 4.91, 66% female, 16% non-white, M education = 17.3 years) with self-reported memory loss and a baseline score of 24-37 on the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status (TICS). CFF was measured psychophysically using flicker photometry. Cognitive domains were assessed with a standardized neuropsychological test battery, administered prior to and directly following a six-month music training intervention consisting of weekly computer-administered piano lessons and 30 minutes of daily at-home practice. Participants were provided an 88-key weighted keyboard to use for home practice.


There were significant improvements (t(40) = -1.97, p = .03) in cognitive processing speed scores from pre-intervention (M = 38.5, SD = 6.1) to post-intervention (M = 40.6, SD = 6.7). Greater time spent engaging in training (piano practice) predicted greater training-related improvements in cognitive processing speed (F(1,39) = 4.20, p = .047). Neither baseline cognitive flexibility nor baseline CFF were found to moderate this association, or the degree of training-related improvements in cognitive processing speed.


This study provides supporting evidence that piano learning is an effective form of cognitive training for the maintenance and improvement of cognitive function, particularly cognitive processing speed, for older adults at risk for ADRD. Our results extend understandings of the cognitive underpinnings of this effect. Specifically, we showed that cognitive flexibility does not appear to represent a core cognitive ability underlying training-related change in cognitive processing speed. Moreover, this change does not depend on a more basic, atomistic component of processing speed (CFF). Further investigation of moderators of training-related improvement in cognitive performance is warranted to help elucidate mechanisms underlying far-transfer training effects.

Category: Aging

Keyword 1: dementia - Alzheimer's disease
Keyword 2: cognitive rehabilitation
Keyword 3: mild cognitive impairment