Structural neuroplasticity in expert pianists depends on the age of musical training onset

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Abstract

In the last decade, several studies have investigated the neuroplastic changes induced by long-term musical training. Here we investigated structural brain differences in expert pianists compared to non-musician controls, as well as the effect of the age of onset (AoO) of piano playing. Differences with non-musicians and the effect of sensitive periods in musicians have been studied previously, but importantly, this is the first time in which the age of onset of music-training was assessed in a group of musicians playing the same instrument, while controlling for the amount of practice. We recruited a homogeneous group of expert pianists who differed in their AoO but not in their lifetime or present amount of training, and compared them to an age-matched group of non-musicians. A subset of the pianists also completed a scale-playing task in order to control for performance skill level differences. Voxel-based morphometry analysis was used to examine gray-matter differences at the whole-brain level. Pianists showed greater gray matter (GM) volume in bilateral putamen (extending also to hippocampus and amygdala), right thalamus, bilateral lingual gyri and left superior temporal gyrus, but a GM volume shrinkage in the right supramarginal, right superior temporal and right postcentral gyri, when compared to non-musician controls. These results reveal a complex pattern of plastic effects due to sustained musical training: a network involved in reinforcement learning showed increased GM volume, while areas related to sensorimotor control, auditory processing and score-reading presented a reduction in the volume of GM. Behaviorally, early-onset pianists showed higher temporal precision in their piano performance than late-onset pianists, especially in the left hand. Furthermore, early onset of piano playing was associated with smaller GM volume in the right putamen and better piano performance (mainly in the left hand). Our results, therefore, reveal for the first time in a single large dataset of healthy pianists the link between onset of musical practice, behavioral performance, and putaminal gray matter structure. In summary, skill-related plastic adaptations may include decreases and increases in GM volume, dependent on an optimization of the system caused by an early start of musical training. We believe our findings enrich the plasticity discourse and shed light on the neural basis of expert skill acquisition.

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