In Lee Dye?s column on abcnews.com, he tells about how Christo Pantev, a neuroscientist at Toronto?s Baycrest Center for Geriatric Care, noticed the vitality of the elderly patients who played a musical instrument. ?I saw much more activity in these people than in the others,? says Pantev. He saw a difference even among those who were slipping into dementia. The last thing that goes, he says, is their ability to remember music.
He has developed evidence that the study of music may change the way the human brain is wired. He is trying to discover whether learning a skill, like playing the violin, physically changes the brain and if it can even prevent or delay mental deterioration among the elderly.
If music rewires the brain, it could be due to the intense concentration it takes to play an instrument and the long hours of practice. As a child, Pantev spent years studying the violin, and he says, ?If I work, I have to hear music.?
While working at the University of Muenster?s Institute for Experimental Audiology in Germany, Pantev and a colleague began studying people who had lost a limb to see how their brains adapted. It?s known that people who lose a limb often fell pain, or other sensations, in their it, even though it?s no longer there.
They used sensitive equipment that could measure electric activity and magnetic fields in the brain to see which areas were active when the person reported feeling ?phantom pain? in the missing limb. The results showed that other parts of the body took over the neurons formerly used by the missing limb. If the lip took over those neurons, for example, simply biting the lip caused the person to feel pain in the phantom limb.
Their research showed that the brain adapted to its new environment by rewiring itself, and that led Pantev to wonder, ?Can we modify the functional brain organization by training?? He needed some way to test to see if training had a measurable impact on the brain. Pantev knew from his own experience that playing the violin required far more dexterity in the left hand than the right. ?The right hand is much less involved,? he says.
Thus music became the perfect model to study, especially the violin. The difference between using the left hand as opposed to the right gave the researchers something to measure in the brain. Over time, they reasoned, practicing the violin several hours a day should cause a neurological shift in the brain.
They used a helmet-like device with more than 200 sensors to detect magnetic fields in the brain. The non-invasive system allowed them to measure changes in the field in both musicians and non-musicians. Simply touching the fingers of the participants stimulated the brain.
They discovered that the magnetic field in the section of the brain that analyzes signals from the fingers of the left hand was far stronger among violinists than it was among non-musicians. ?We found very well pronounced changes,? Pantev says, ?So music does something to us, and to our brain.?
The human brain is more ?plastic,? or malleable, when we are young than when we are old. Pantev has teamed up with professors Larry E. Roberts and Laurel Trainor of McMaster University to measure the change in children?s brains when they first begin studying music. They will spend at least two years monitoring children who are enrolled in the Suzuki School of Music in Toronto. The children, aged 4 to 6, will be compared to children of similar background and intelligence who have never studied music.
Their long range goal is to figure out if learning music or any other demanding task can equip the mind to deal better with such things as mental illness and dementia brought on by aging.
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