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Musicians' Brains Differ from Those of Non-Musicians

In experiments with mice, researchers have found that nicotine triggers the same neural pathways that give opiates such as heroin their addictively rewarding properties--including associating an environment with the drug's reward. However, unlike opiates, nicotine does not directly activate the brain's opiate receptors, but activates the natural opioid reward pathway in the brain.

Music can change your life, and it also can change your brain. Musicians spend long hours practicing with their instruments, and this practice gives them skills that the rest of us lack. For example, violinists develop special hand motor skills by intensive practice, that could lead to differences in both their hand movements and their brains.

A group of scientists from the University of Chicago, led by Steven Small, used MRI scans to study whether patterns of brain activity generated when people move their fingers differ between violinists and non-violinists.

Expert amateur violinists and people with no musical training participated in the study that measured their brain activity while they performed a task that cued them to use one of their fingers to press on a violin string located on a fingerboard placed in their lap. Movement of fingers in the left hand was predicted by activity in the motor brain region in musicians but not non-musicians.

Conversely, movement of fingers in the right hand led to predictable brain activity only in non-musicians. Thus, extensive practice of specific movements of the individual fingers in violinists' left hands results in reorganized patterns of brain activity.

Curiously, the part of the brain responsible for the right hand is actually less functionally specific in violinists, presumably because using the bow requires more globally synchronized movements of this hand.

This intriguing finding, presented at the recent meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping in Toronto, shows that extensive practice in musicians, and likely also in athletes and other physically skilled people, changes their brains as well as their bodies.

Source: Organization for Human Brain Mapping

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