Practice may make the brains of highly trained musicians and other skilled individuals different from the rest of us.

Researchers found that hand movements of skilled violinists create different patterns of activity in the brain than those produced by nonmusicians.

They say the results suggest that extensive practice may rewire the brain to facilitate complex movements in highly trained musicians, athletes, and others.

The results of the study were presented this week at the 11th annual meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping in Toronto.

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Practice May Alter the Mind

In the study, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to compare brain activity patterns triggered by finger movements in a group of eight expert amateur violinists and eight people with no musical training. All of the participants were right-handed.

Researchers recorded brain activity while the participants were cued to use one of their fingers to press a violin string on a fingerboard placed on their laps.

The results showed that finger movements of the nondominant left hand led to predictable brain activity in musicians but not in nonmusicians.

But movement of every finger of the dominant right hand led to predictable brain activity in nonmusicians but not the violinists.

Researchers say the findings show that extensive practice of specific individual finger movements in the violinists’ left hands led to unique patterns of brain activity not found in nonmusicians.

In addition, the more synchronized movements of the fingers of the right hand of the violinists, which holds the bow, produced less compartmentalized patterns of brain activity for each finger than those found in the dominant hand of the nonmusicians.

Researchers say the study shows that the brain has different activity patterns related to both highly individualized and synchronized finger movements, which can be altered by intensive practice.

Read WebMD's "Making Music Switches Off Stress"

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson, MD

SOURCES: Small, S. “Distributed Population Codes in the Primary Motor Cortex of Violinists,” presented at the 11th annual meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, Toronto, June 12-16, 2005. News release, Organization for Human Brain Mapping.