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Increased auditory cortical representation in musicians


Acoustic stimuli are processed throughout the auditory projection pathway, including the neocortex, by neurons that are aggregated into ‘tonotopic’ maps according to their specific frequency tunings1,2,3. Research on animals has shown that tonotopic representations are not statically fixed in the adult organism but can reorganize after damage to the cochlea4 or after training the intact subject to discriminate between auditory stimuli5. Here we used functional magnetic source imaging (single dipole model) to measure cortical representations in highly skilled musicians. Dipole moments for piano tones, but not for pure tones of similar fundamental frequency (matched in loudness), were found to be enlarged by about 25% in musicians compared with control subjects who had never played an instrument. Enlargement was correlated with the age at which musicians began to practise and did not differ between musicians with absolute or relative pitch. These results, when interpreted with evidence for modified somatosensory representations of the fingering digits in skilled violinists6, suggest that use-dependent functional reorganization extends across the sensory cortices to reflect the pattern of sensory input processed by the subject during development of musical skill.

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Figure 1: Cortical stimulation by pure and piano tones in musicians and non-musicians.
Figure 2: Strength of cortical activation is higher in response to piano, rather than pure, tones and in musicians who began practising before age 9.

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We thank our subjects for their cooperation, K. Berning for assistance and A.Wollbrink for engineering. This research was supported by grants from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and NATO.

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Correspondence to Christo Pantev.

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Pantev, C., Oostenveld, R., Engelien, A. et al. Increased auditory cortical representation in musicians. Nature 392, 811–814 (1998).

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