From the second half of the 20th century onwards, several teams of neuroscientists around the world have tried to understand the ability that our brain exhibits to adapt to new experiences and the environment (neuroplasticity). In the last decade, several studies have investigated the changes that some trainings, such as musical practice (learning to play an instrument/sing), can elicit in the brain. Results from these investigations show that an intense musical training elicits changes in sensory and motor regions, and improve the auditory discrimination and the motor synchronization. Moreover, some studies note that the younger one starts his/her musical education, the greater are the brain structural and functional changes.
The study that the Cognition and Brain Plasticity Unit of Barcelona (associated to the University of Barcelona and the IDIBELL) is publishing in the scientific journal NeuroImage, has contributed to increase our knowledge regarding brain plasticity in musicians. A group of 36 expert pianists (among them, 21 started their musical training before age 7, and 15 started at age 7 or after that age) and another group of 17 college students without any musical background were recruited. The goal was to look at the potential differences in brain anatomy that might exist between these two groups, as well as the differences that might be between the pianists that started before and after age 7. Structural magnetic resonance imaging was used; this is a method that allows researchers to obtain measurements about the volume of grey matter in the whole brain (areas containing mainly neuron bodies), as well as calculate and visualize the regions in which there are some differences between the groups. In addition, 28 pianists from the sample completed a scale-playing task, in order to obtain an objective measure of their pianistic abilities and their temporal precision while performing on the piano.
Comparing with non-musicians, pianists showed: more grey matter in regions associated with learning (hippocampus), with sensory and motor control and processing (putamen and thalamus), with emotional processing and the reward system (amygdala), as well as with auditory and language processing (left superior temporal cortex); but they also showed less grey matter in regions involved in sensory and motor control (postcentral gyrus), in processing of musical stimuli (right superior temporal cortex), and structures that have been related to music-score reading (supramarginal gyrus).
Moreover, among the pianists it was observed that the right putamen correlated significantly with the age of start of music training (the later they started to play the piano, the greater was the volume of grey matter in the right putamen). The putamen is a deep subcortical structure which main function is motor control and automatization of movements. The volume of grey matter in this structure has been previously related with piano-playing skills in the same direction than in the present study: the higher the pianistic skills (the automaticity), the smaller the volume of grey matter. One of the interpretations for this result is that pianists who started earlier in life have been able to perform an optimization process of a circuit highly trained by these musicians. This could also be the reason explaining why, in the comparison between musicians and non-musicians, less grey matter was found in some areas related to music performance.
Regarding the scale-playing task, those pianists who have started their musical training before age 7 played with higher regularity than those who started after 7 years of age, even though all the pianists participating in the study practiced the same amount of hours nowadays and have achieved the same level of proficiency.
As a conclusion, this new study observed that an homogeneous sample of musicians (expert pianists, without differences in the amount of practice in their lifetime or nowadays) presented increases and decreases in the volume of grey matter in different brain regions comparing with participants without music training. Furthermore, even though they exhibit the same level of proficiency, they have accumulated the same amount of hours of piano practice in their lifetime and they were currently practicing the same amount of hours at the moment of the study, those pianists who started their musical training before age 7 showed greater efficiency both in their brain structure and in their piano performance (observable as a smaller volume of grey matter in the right putamen and a higher temporal regularity while playing musical scales on the piano).
These findings could be of great importance for education, in order to include more hours of music training in general education, or for trying to use the music as an early-stimulation tool (during infancy/childhood), for example.
This study has been performed in collaboration between the Cognition and Brain Plasticity Unit of Barcelona (associated to the University of Barcelona and the IDIBELL) and the Institute for Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine (in
the University of Music, Drama and Media) in Hannover, Germany.
Vaquero, L., Hartmann, K., Ripollés, P., Rojo, N., Sierpowska, J., François, C., Càmara, E., van Vugt, F.T., Mohammadi, B., Samii, A., Münte, T.F., Rodríguez-Fornells, A., & Altenmüller, E. (2016) Structural neuroplasticity in expert pianists depends on the age of musical training onset. NeuroImage, 126:106-119.