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Musicians found to have 'more sensitive brains'

Lorna Duckworth,Health Correspondent
Monday 17 June 2002 00:00 BST

Musicians have bigger and more sensitive brains than people who do not play instruments, scientists revealed yesterday.

Musicians have bigger and more sensitive brains than people who do not play instruments, scientists revealed yesterday.

The auditory cortex, which is the part of the brain concerned with hearing, contains 130 per cent more "grey matter" in professional musicians than in non-musicians.

In amateur players, the volume of the auditory cortex is between the two, a team of researchers from Heidelberg University in Germany has found. They used scans and imaging techniques to compare the size and activity of the auditory cortex in 37 people.

The professionals, who all performed regularly, showed 102 per cent more activity in their auditory cortex than non-musicians. Activity in the brains of amateur musicians was on average 37 per cent higher than in those who did not play an instrument, the researchers said in a report in Nature Neuroscience. The auditory cortex consists mainly of "grey matter" or nerve cells called neurons, which are interconnected by long filament-like axons, or "white matter".

The scientists found startling physical differences between the three groups. Those with musical experience had larger amounts of grey matter in the region called the Heschl's gyrus. The structure contained 536 to 983 cubic millimetres of grey matter in professional musicians, 189 to 798 cubic millimetres in amateurs, and 172 to 450 cubic millimetres in non-musicians. There was also a high correlation between auditory brain activity and the musical aptitude of volunteers, who were asked to spot subtle changes in pairs of short melodies.

The researchers added that post-mortem studies had revealed abnormally large Heschl's gyrus structures in two eminent musicians. But whether such differences were due to genetics or the effect of musical exposure on the brain remained unclear.

"Our results indicate that the morphology and neurophysiology of HG (Heschl's gyrus) have an essential impact on musical aptitude," said the report's lead author, Peter Schneider. "The question remains, however, whether early exposure to music or a genetic predisposition leads to the functional and anatomical differences between musicians and non-musicians."

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