Test persons with no musical background who completed two weeks of regular exercises on a piano keyboard were not only demonstrably more skilled afterwards; their brains also changed measurably. Studies by the University Hospital San Raffaele (Milan, Italy), presented at the 22nd Meeting of the European Neurological Society (ENS) in Prague, also show that even after a short time, ambidextrous training leads to more balanced action and better coordination between the brain hemispheres.
Only recently explored in great detail is the brain’s ability to automatically reconstruct itself in response to a given task so that its internal structure and organisation best suits the demand. This so-called "neuroplasticity" works according to clear principles: frequently used brain regions automatically interconnect better, while resources are drawn down from those less used. The two new studies show that the exigencies of musical practice are a very effective catalyst for self-optimisation of certain brain activities.
Balance through piano playing
Twelve musically inexperienced subjects had to complete in the first test arrangement ten 35-minute practice sessions, on an electronic piano keyboard, within a period of two weeks. Prior to and after completion of training, hand movement function was examined and neurophysiological tests performed using a 32-channel EEG (electroencephalogram) as well as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). All subjects were able to increase their motor skills dramatically through training. Most striking of all was the harmonisation of the performance of both hands. "Our results show that two-handed exercise training among right-handers is associated with a significant improvement in the dexterity of the left hand," said Dr Elise Houdayer (University Hospital San Raffaele, Milan). “Ten days of a competently controlled exercise training can apparently suffice to trigger changes in cortical plasticity similar to results reported for professional musicians.”
Musical stimuli lead to changes in the brain
In another investigation, performed at the Neuroimaging Research Unit, Hospital San Raffaele, Milan, under the supervision of Prof Massimo Filippi, a total of 45 musically inexperienced subjects were asked to play a given sequence of notes, with their right hand on a computer-modified keyboard, while following the rhythm of a metronome. One group heard only the operations of the metronome, the second an additional musical application with the same rhythm as the metronome and the third, with the most difficult task, heard a musical application involving a more rapid pace than the metronome. An exercise session lasted 30 minutes. All subjects underwent ten sessions within two weeks. Before and after the end of this exercise all subjects completed an agility test and brain examination using the latest functional and structural imaging techniques.
In all three groups, dexterity had improved. While no influence on "white matter" architecture of the brain could be detected as a result of the piano exercises, significant gray matter volume changes were shown, however, in brain areas that are essential for the coordination of movement. In the group that had to put up with a more rapid musical rhythm than provided by the metronome alone, the volume of gray mass changed to an even greater extent. "Musical stimulation during exercise training thus improves motor performance and affects the structural plasticity of the gray matter,” said Prof Massimo Filippi. “The complexity of the task is also associated with different pattern of cortical activations as measured with functional MRI", said Dr Rocca.