Studies by the University Hospital San Raffaele (Milan, Italy), presented at the 22nd Meeting of the European Neurological Society (ENS) in Prague demonstrated that test persons with no musical background were not only visibly more skilled after completing two weeks of regular exercise on a piano keyboard, their brains also changed measurably.

The study also provides evidence that even a short period of ambidextrous training leads to better coordination and more balanced action between the left and right brain hemisphere. The training also leads to enhanced responses to the nerve impulses in the fingers musculature.

Furthermore, the musical stimuli also prompted a structural reconstruction of gray matter in those brain regions that are involved in coordinated movement. The study revealed that the more complex the task was, the better.

Scientists have only recently researched the brains ‘neuroplasticity’ a process in which the brain automatically reconstructs itself in response to a given task so that its internal structure and organization are best suited to a demand. Neuroplasticity functions by automatically establishing better interconnection of frequently used areas of the brain, whilst resources are drawn down from those less used.

Practicing music drastically and effectively accelerates self-optimization of certain brain activities, as two studies demonstrated.

In the first study, researchers asked 12 musically inexperienced participants to complete ten 35-minute practice sessions on an electronic piano keyboard within a two-week period. They examined the participants’ hand movement function before and after the training was completed, conducting neurophysiological tests using a 32-channel EEG (electroencephalogram) and a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

The results revealed that all participants achieved a dramatic increase in their motor skills dramatically through training, yet the most surprising result was the harmonization in which both hands were able to perform.

Dr Elise Houdayer from the University Hospital San Raffaele in Milan declared:

“Our results show that two-handed exercise training among right-handers is associated with a significant improvement in the dexterity of the left hand. Ten days of a competently controlled exercise training can apparently suffice to trigger changes in cortical plasticity similar to results reported for professional musicians.”

The second study was led by Prof Massimo Filippi at the Neuroimaging Research Unit at Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital and involved 45 musically inexperienced participants who were split into 3 different groups. All participants were given the task of using their right hand for playing a particular sequence of notes on a computer-modified keyboard, whilst following the rhythm of a metronome for 30 minutes per exercise session. The study period involved ten sessions during a two-week period.

One group was only able to listen to the metronome, whilst the second group listened to another piece of music with the same rhythm as the metronome. The third group was given the most complicated task of performing the given task whilst listening to music with a faster pace than the metronome. All participants underwent agility and brain tests using the latest imaging techniques prior to the study and at study end.

The findings revealed an improved dexterity in all three groups, and although there was no impact observed on “white matter” architecture of the brain following the exercises, the team did notice substantial changes in gray matter volume in brain regions, which are vital for coordinating movement. The findings also showed that the brain’s gray mass changed to an even greater extent in those who performed the most complicated task (Group 3).

Prof. Filippi concluded: “Musical stimulation during exercise training thus improves motor performance and affects the structural plasticity of the gray matter.”

Dr. Rocca added: “The complexity of the task is also associated with different pattern of cortical activations as measured with functional MRI.”

Written By Petra Rattue