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Eur J Neurosci. 2004 Jan;19(2):473-8.

Superior tactile performance and learning in professional pianists: evidence for meta-plasticity in musicians.

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1
Institute for Neuroinformatics, Theoretical Biology Ruhr-University, D-44780 Bochum, Germany. patrick.ragert@neuroinformatik.ruhr-uni-bochum.de

Abstract

Musician's brains constitute an interesting model for neuroplasticity. Imaging studies demonstrated that sensorimotor cortical representations are altered in musicians, which was assumed to arise from the development of skilled performance. However, the perceptual consequences of the cortical changes remain elusive. Here we ask whether cortical reorganization induced by professional musical skill training is paralleled by the evolution of other, unrelated perceptual abilities. We therefore studied psychophysically tactile spatial acuity as an indirect marker of cortical changes in professional pianists and non-musician control subjects using a simultaneous two-point discrimination paradigm. We show that long-lasting piano practising resulted in lower spatial discrimination thresholds in comparison to non-musicians. In musicians, individual discrimination thresholds were linearly correlated with the daily training duration, indicating a direct link between tactile acuity and the degree of piano practising. To investigate whether the superior acuity in pianists is subject to further improvement, we used a Hebbian stimulation protocol of tactile coactivation known to improve spatial tactile acuity. Three hours of coactivation further reduced their discrimination thresholds. The coactivation-induced gain in pianists was significantly larger in comparison to control subjects and correlated with the years of heavy daily practising (>3 h/day), but not with the total years including casual playing. Our results suggest that despite already high-level performance in pianists, Hebbian learning was more effective in musicians than in controls. This implies stronger capacities for plastic reorganization and points to enhanced learning abilities implicating a form of meta-plasticity in professional pianists.

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