Observing Plasticity of the Auditory System: Volumetric Decrease Along with Increased Functional Connectivity in Aspiring Professional Musicians

Playing music relies on several sensory systems and the motor system, and poses strong demands on control processes, hence, offering an excellent model to study how experience can mold brain structure and function. Although most studies on neural correlates of music expertise rely on cross-sectional comparisons, here we compared within-person changes over time in aspiring professionals intensely preparing for an entrance exam at a University of the Arts to skilled amateur musicians not preparing for a music exam. In the group of aspiring professionals, we observed gray-matter volume decrements in left planum polare, posterior insula, and left inferior frontal orbital gyrus over a period of about 6 months that were absent among the amateur musicians. At the same time, the left planum polare, the largest cluster of structural change, showed increasing functional connectivity with left and right auditory cortex, left precentral gyrus, left supplementary motor cortex, left and right postcentral gyrus, and left cingulate cortex, all regions previously identified to relate to music expertise. In line with the expansion–renormalization pattern of brain plasticity (Wenger et al., 2017a. Expansion and renormalization of human brain structure during skill acquisition. Trends Cogn Sci. 21:930–939.), the aspiring professionals might have been in the selection and refinement period of plastic change.

Wenger, E., Papadaki, E., Werner, A., Kühn, S., & Lindenberger, U. (2021). Observing plasticity of the auditory system: Volumetric decreases along with increased functional connectivity in aspiring professional musicians. Cerebral Cortex Communications, 2(2), tgab008.
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