Does Talent or Training Make a Musician Good? Depends on Their Brain Structure

Study fuels nature versus nurture debate.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? New research on the brain’s capacity to learn suggests there’s more to it than the adage that “practise makes perfect.” A music-training study by scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital -The Neuro, at McGill University and colleagues in Germany found evidence to distinguish the parts of the brain that account for individual talent from the parts that are activated through training.

The research involved brain imaging studies of 15 young adults with little or no musical background who were scanned before and after they underwent six weeks of musical training. Participants were required to learn simple piano pieces. Brain activity in certain areas changed after learning, indicating the effect of training. But the activity in a different set of brain structures, measured before the training session had started, predicted which test subjects would learn quickly or slowly.

“Predisposition plays an important role for auditory-motor learning that can be clearly distinguished from training-induced plasticity,” says Dr. Robert Zatorre, a cognitive neuroscientist at The Neuro who co-directs Montreal’s International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (BRAMS) and is lead author of the study in Cerebral Cortex. “Our findings pertain to the debate about the relative influence of ‘nature or nurture,’ but also have potential practical relevance for medicine and education.”

The research could help to create custom-made interventions for students and for neurological patients based on their predisposition and needs.

This image shows a young boy playing a piano.

Participants were required to learn simple piano pieces. Brain activity in certain areas changed after learning, indicating the effect of training. But the activity in a different set of brain structures, measured before the training session had started, predicted which test subjects would learn quickly or slowly. Image is for illustrative purposes only.

Future cognitive neuroscience studies will explore the extent to which individual differences in predisposition are a result of brain plasticity due to previous experiences and to people’s genetics.

About this neuroscience research

The study was conducted by Dr. Zatorre’s trainees, Sibylle Herholz and Emily Coffey at The Neuro and BRAMS, and by Christo Pantev at the Institute for Biomagnetism and Biosignalanalysis, University of Münster, Germany.

Funding: This study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canada Fund for Innovation, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship.

Source: Anita Kar – McGill University
Image Credit: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: Abstract for “Dissociation of Neural Networks for Predisposition and for Training-Related Plasticity in Auditory-Motor Learning” by Sibylle C. Herholz, Emily B.J. Coffey, Christo Pantev and Robert J. Zatorre in Cerebral Cortex. Published online July 1 2015 doi:10.1093/cercor/bhv138


Abstract

Dissociation of Neural Networks for Predisposition and for Training-Related Plasticity in Auditory-Motor Learning

Skill learning results in changes to brain function, but at the same time individuals strongly differ in their abilities to learn specific skills. Using a 6-week piano-training protocol and pre- and post-fMRI of melody perception and imagery in adults, we dissociate learning-related patterns of neural activity from pre-training activity that predicts learning rates. Fronto-parietal and cerebellar areas related to storage of newly learned auditory-motor associations increased their response following training; in contrast, pre-training activity in areas related to stimulus encoding and motor control, including right auditory cortex, hippocampus, and caudate nuclei, was predictive of subsequent learning rate. We discuss the implications of these results for models of perceptual and of motor learning. These findings highlight the importance of considering individual predisposition in plasticity research and applications.

“Dissociation of Neural Networks for Predisposition and for Training-Related Plasticity in Auditory-Motor Learning” by Sibylle C. Herholz, Emily B.J. Coffey, Christo Pantev and Robert J. Zatorre in Cerebral Cortex. Published online July 1 2015 doi:10.1093/cercor/bhv138

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