• String Players' Brains are Special by Stephanie Haun

    As string players, we develop brain areas that others do not. Other musicians develop unique brains, but string players are subjects of ongoing research because they offer distinctive evidence of brain plasticity. Our brains develop more in volume, mechanisms of use, and perhaps heightened abilities beyond music alone.

    Brain plasticity describes a process of neural development that happens ordinarily during the lifespan, beginning with periods prior to birth. It was thought that such development only occurred at certain developmental junctures, but recent research coming from developmental, biological, neurological, psychiatric, psychological, infancy, musical and cognitive science indicates that such plasticity may occur to some extent throughout the lifespan. [1, 2] In short, new neural pathways may form to take the place of injured tissue or connections, new growth may occur forging new neural pathways, and centers of brain use may shift with the acquisition of new skills, activity and learning.

    One of the earlier studies conducted using young string students explored a small group of nine students comprised of 6 violinists, 2 cellists, and 1 guitarist, compared with 6 similarly aged young students without musical training. [1] String players were chosen because their left hands use differing amounts of finger, thumb pressure and movement during playing. Their right hands also move, but with less individual finger pressure and movement. Thus the researchers hypothesized that mental imaging would differ between string players and non-musicians, causing greater brain development.

    What they found indicated that not only were brains of string players larger, but parts of the brain sensitive to left hand finger motions was more responsive than those of non-musicians. Strengthening of these brain regions also caused a “dipole movement,” a shift in brain locations used to represent the finger movements. [1] The degree of change was related to the age of beginning study; string players who began at an earlier age showed the largest development. Interestingly, the amount of time the player practiced did not appear to relate to the brain changes.

    String players and other musically trained children also develop faster mental processing speeds on some tasks, as measured by IQ and musical ability tests. [2] A German study involving 17 young violin students in a special study program and students exposed to an early childhood music program, compared with 82 students without musical training, measured saccadic “tracking” eye movements during tasks like finger tapping and following jumping spots on a test. All of the musically trained children performed better than the non-musical students. [2] The researchers found the results indicated a small, significant advantage in the music students IQ measurements that appeared to be related to their higher scores on the eye movement tasks. While this result alone could not establish a cause and effect relationship between music training and higher IQ, it demonstrated an influence on mental speed and general intelligence. A methodologically different study using voice and piano students found that young music students had relatively higher increases in IQ compared with non-musically trained children. [3]

    Increased Cortical Representation of the Fingers of the Left Hand in String Players Thomas Elbert, Christo Pantev, Christian Wienbruch, Brigitte Rockstroh, Edward Taub Magnetic source imaging revealed that the cortical representation of the digits of the left hand of string players was larger than that in controls. The effect was smallest for the left thumb, and no such differences were observed for the representations of the right hand digits. The amount of cortical reorganization in the representation of the fingering digits was correlated with the age at which the person had begun to play. These results suggest that the representation of different parts of the body in the primary somatosensory cortex of humans depends on use and changes to conform to the current needs and experiences of the individual. Evidence has accumulated over the past rwo decades that indicares that alterations in afferent input can induce plastic reorganizational ch3; (ii) a goodness of fit of the EGO model to the measured field >0.95; and (Iii) a minimal confidence volume of the EGO location <300 mm'J, 18. For all cortical measures, an ANOVA with the between-subJect factor group (musicians versus controls) and the within-subject factors digit (01 versus 05) and side of stimulation (left versus right) was computed first. ANOVAs for subsets of the data or t tests were used to resolve interactions. 19. Given a constant direction of the equivalent current dipole, the dipole moment indicates the total strength of cortical polarization-that is, tile number of neurons involved during a cortical response. If this number increases, the dipole moment also increases. Any active focal area can be modeled by an equivalent current dipole. Each dendritic current flow contributes to this dipole moment according to the formula dipole moment = (conductivity) x (cross section of the dendrite) x (potential difference along the dendrite) S. J. Williamson and L. Kaufman [in Auditory Evoked Magnetic Fields and Electric Potentials, F. Grandori, M. Hoke, G. L. Romani, Eds. (Karger, Basel, 1990), pp. 1-39] assume the diameter of an apical dendrite to be 4 fCm, the intracellular conductivity to be about 0.25 S/m, and the potential difference to be about 10 mV. With the use of these assumptions, about 30,000 dendrites would be necessary to produce a dipole moment of 10 nA-m If conductivity and potential difference are not different in musicians and controls, the magnification of the dipole moment in response to finger stimulation of the left hand in musicians can be explained if approximately twice as many cells were activated in musicians than were activated in the controls. 20. G. H. Recanzone, M. M. Merzenich, J. Schreiner, J. Neurophysiol. 67, 1071 (1992) 21. N. M. Welnberger et al., Concepts Neurosci. 1, 91 (1990) 22. We are indebted to T. Pons for this observation. 23. We appreciate the assistance of S. Hampson, B. Lutkenh6ner, and O. Steinstrater. Supported by the Oeutsche Forschungsgemeinscllaft. 25 May 1995; accepted 13 September 1995

Last Modified on September 21, 2017