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Playing a Musical Instrument Improves Brain’s Audio-motor Connectivity

Playing a musical instrument throughout life improves the connection between the hearing area and the motor zone, as revealed by the study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex by researchers from the Neuropsychology and Functional Neuroimaging group of the Universitat Jaume I (UJI) and the McGill University of Canada.

The research, performed through the analysis of the brain of musicians and non-musicians in resting state using functional magnetic resonance, has also revealed that musicians who play an instrument that requires both hands have greater autonomy between them.

The cognitive neuroscience study “Modulation of Functional Connectivity in Auditory-Motor Networks in Musicians Compared with Non-musicians” has focused on music to understand how brain function and structure can be modified through learning. Although most people have neural systems that allow them to listen to music and dance or sing at the same time, playing a musical instrument at a professional level is a complex task, since it requires the bimanual coordination of both hands and the interactions between the auditory system (ears) and the motor system (hands), which are achieved with years of practice. The research shows some of the effects that music training has on the brain structure and function.

Researchers from the UJI, together with Robert J. Zatorre from the McGill University of Canada in collaboration with ERESA in Valencia, studied the impact of music training on the brain through both functional and structural images of the brain in rest state taken through high field magnetic resonance imaging. “Functional magnetic resonance at rest, i.e., in the absence of external stimuli, is a new brain scanning methodology. It is revealing interesting data about how the brain works when it is active and enables to study the effects of learning on the brain,” emphasizes César Ávila, professor of the Department of Basic and Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology of the Universitat Jaume I.

One of the main findings of the study has been to verify that musical training produces an increase in audio-motor interactions in the right hemisphere at rest. “This indicates that when a musician trains and spends many years learning to play a musical instrument, there are more effective connections between the auditory and motor systems, which are the regions mainly involved in playing an instrument,” explains María Ángeles Palomar-García, doctor in Psychology and researcher at the Universitat Jaume I.

Bimanual control

The research also revealed an adaptation in musicians’ brains, in the brain areas responsible for controlling hand movement. Specifically, they found that participants with musical training had reduced connectivity between the motor regions that control both hands. This, according to María Ángeles Palomar-García, “may reflect greater skill with both hands for these musicians, compared to the participants who had no musical training, due to the need to use both hands in an independent and coordinated way to play their instrument.”

The tests also showed that — in the case of musicians playing an instrument that only requires a hand to play, such as the trumpet — , their ability with both hands was the same as the group that had no musical training. “In addition, the independence of the hands in the participants who played musical instruments that require the use of the two hands is related to the hours of practice throughout life. That is to say: the participants who have practiced more with their musical instrument have greater independence between the two hands,” says María Ángeles Palomar-García. Therefore, the study concludes that the more you play a musical instrument that requires bimanual movements, the greater the independence between the spontaneous activity of each hand. This will allow musicians to play their musical instrument better.

Brain plasticity

The study reveals a degree of brain plasticity, which indicates that the brain is able to adapt itself. “Studies on brain plasticity associated with learning are fundamental to understanding the factors that determine the flexibility of the brain to adapt to a particular situation,” says César Avila. “The study of connectivity and the interaction between different brain areas in state of rest is a major component to advance the progress of brain knowledge,” he adds.

The study had the participation of 34 people, 17 of whom were musicians and the other 17 were participants who only had compulsory musical training. Currently, the Neuropsychology and Functional Neuroimaging group of the UJI is continuing this line of research studying similar processes also in children, together with the UJI Department of Education.

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