People who play drums regularly for years differ from unmusical people in their brain structure and function


People who play drums regularly for years differ from unmusical people in their brain structure and function.

The results of a study by researchers from Bochum suggest that they have fewer, but thicker fibres in the main connecting tract between the two halves of the brain.

In addition, their motor brain areas are organised more efficiently.

This is the conclusion drawn by a research team headed by Dr. Lara Schlaffke from the Bergmannsheil university clinic in Bochum and Associate Professor Dr. Sebastian Ocklenburg from the biopsychology research unit at Ruhr-Universität Bochum following a study with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The results have been published in the journal Brain and Behavior, online on 4 December 2019.

Drummers were never previously studied

“It has long been understood that playing a musical instrument can change the brain via neuroplastic processes,” says Sarah Friedrich, who wrote her bachelor’s thesis on this project. “But no one had previously looked specifically into drummers,” she adds.

The researchers from Bochum were interested in this group because their motor coordination far surpasses that of untrained people.

“Most people can only perform fine motor tasks with one hand and have problems playing different rhythms with both hands at the same time,” explains Lara Schlaffke. “Drummers can do things that are impossible for untrained people.”

Drumming first, then brain scans

The team intended to gain new insights into the organisation of complex motor processes in the brain by identifying the changes in the brain caused by this training.

The researchers tested 20 professional drummers who have played their instrument for an average of 17 years and currently practice for more than ten hours per week.

They examined them using various MRI imaging techniques that provide insights into the structure and function of the brain. They then compared the data with measurements of 24 unmusical control subjects. In the first step, both groups had to play drums to test their abilities and were then examined in the MRI scanner.

More efficient motor processing

Drummers presented clear differences in the front part of the corpus callosum, a brain structure that connects the two hemispheres and whose front part is responsible for motor planning. The data indicated that the drummers had fewer but thicker fibres in this important connecting tract between the brain hemispheres.

This allows musicians to exchange information between the hemispheres more quickly than the controls.

The structure of the corpus callosum also predicted the performance in the drum test: the higher the measure of the thickness of the fibres in the corpus callosum, the better the drumming performance.

Moreover, the brain of drummers was less active in motor tasks than that of control subjects. This phenomenon is referred to as sparse sampling: a more efficient brain organisation in the areas leads to less activation in professionals.

Older participants wanted for new study

“We would like to thank our highly motivated participants who took part in the study,” says Lara Schlaffke. “It was great fun working with you.”.

Nowadays, there is an increase in life expectancy, which is highly positive for the human being, although it brings with it a decline in our cognitive functions (Christie et al., 2017). It is estimated that by 2050 there will be 114 million people with dementia, this condition being one of the major causes of disability and dependence in the older adult population (World Health Organization, 2012Iuliano et al., 2015).

For this reason, proposing interventions that enhance the cognitive functions or strategies that delay the onset of disabilities associated with age is a topic of capital interest for the biopsychosocial health of our species (Kramer et al., 2004). For example, treatments that enhance cognitive abilities could be promoted in each life stage, from childhood to old age.

Memory is one of the cognitive skills most affected by aging (Nyberg et al., 2003Park and Festini, 2017). This function could be defined as the capacity to learn, store, and retrieve information (Tulving, 2002Squire and Wixted, 2011). There are several memory subsystems; the one mostly affected by aging is episodic memory (Friedman, 2013).

At the same time, emotional memory could be considered a part of episodic memory, and it is defined as better storage and recall of the events associated with emotional factors, i.e., those events that have an emotional load are better remembered than the neutral ones (Cahill and McGaugh, 1995Bermúdez-Rattoni and Prado-Alcalá, 2001). Evidence showed that older adults had a decrease in episodic memory, but emotions could work as enhancers and compensate for this deficit (Moayeri et al., 2010).

Several strategies or environmental interventions, in addition to lifestyles, have been investigated mainly to improve cognitive functions and to prevent and/or delay cognitive deficits. Such interventions include learning other languages (Abutalebi et al., 2015), physical activity (Loprinzi et al., 2018), and music (Schneider et al., 2018).

In particular, music makes unique demands on our nervous system (Justel and Diaz Abrahan, 2012), and therefore, over the last years, music and each of its components have been used as a tool to investigate human cognition and its underlying brain mechanisms, because music affects the cortical and subcortical areas (Pantev and Herholz, 2011Koelsch et al., 2018).

Some studies show that listening to music improves cognitive skills such as fluency (Thompson et al., 2006), working memory (Mammarella et al., 2007), and recognition memory (Ferreri et al., 2013), among others. For example, background music was investigated as a focal and acute strategy that could improve cognitive skills.

This technique refers to any music that is played while the listener’s primary attention is focused on another task or activity (Bottiroli et al., 2014). Different studies about the effect of background music have shown some improvements on cognitive abilities. For example, Judde and Rickard (2010) performed a study in which participants listening 3 min of music after the acquisition of information and they had a better recognition memory 1 week later. However, there is some evidence of reduced cognitive performance when music is present (Kämpfe et al., 2010Rickard et al., 2012).

Furthermore, other investigations indicate that musical production could have even more beneficial effects than musical perception (Lappe et al., 2008Fancourt et al., 2014). There is some research about music production, as a focal intervention, in the field of neurologic music therapy (Thaut et al., 2009Thaut and Hoemberg, 2014), but none of them focused on the effects of music production on memory. Besides, the studies distinguish how music and its components affect people with and without formal musical knowledge (Zuk et al., 2014Schlaug, 2015Zhao et al., 2017).

In general, because of their extensive training affecting the anatomical and functional organization of their brains, musicians have been shown to have a greater cognitive reserve than non-musicians (Hanna-Pladdy and Gajewski, 2012), and hence, their memory would be less compromised over the years (Talamini et al., 2018). In addition, the protective effect of playing an instrument is greater than that of other leisure activities (Amer et al., 2013).

For example, some studies indicated that music training has shown improvements in the cognitive functions of older musicians compared with non-musicians, such as memory, naming, and executive functions, among others (Hanna-Pladdy and MacKay, 2011).

Among the interventions that involve musical production, musical training is the one that has received the most attention. Training includes learning how to play an instrument, and most studies evaluate the effect of moderate or long-term learning (Barrett et al., 2013), leaving a gap as far as focal interventions are concerned.

Another intervention that involves musical production is musical improvisation, which is defined as an example of musically creative behavior, conceived as an original and novel process requiring divergent thinking (Bengtsson et al., 2007Manzano and Ullén, 2012Diaz Abrahan and Justel, 2015). Research is scarce in this area, and most studies emphasize the use of improvisation in musicians (Limb and Braun, 2008); assuming that improvising musically implies having some degree of expertise in music. However, it is also used with people without musical training as a technique for the patient population (e.g., neurological music therapy, Thaut et al., 2009).

In this perspective, music improvisation is conceived as the combination of sounds created in a specific framework inside an environment of trust, which is established to address the needs of the participant or patient (Wigram, 2004). In this sense, music improvisation is not only performed by musicians, but it is also a real-time ability that every person has (Wigram, 2004).

Still, research on the use of the musical improvisation technique in people without a pathology and in non-musicians is infrequent. In addition, older people are unlikely to begin learning an instrument at an advanced age. Therefore, providing the opportunity of a focal intervention where the participants play instruments and create something novel in groups, without long-term demands, could result in low dropout rates.

The main goal of this work was to investigate the effect of a focal environmental activity as a possible memory improvement technique in older adults. We evaluated whether there were differences between neutral and emotional memory and between participants with and without formal musical knowledge.

The intervention employed was musical improvisation, because it involves a musically creative behavior that may be implemented in musicians or non-musicians and because this focal/acute technique is used with older adults. We expected musical improvisation to improve memory and musicians to perform better than non-musicians in the memory evaluations. Finally, we hypothesized that information with emotional content would be better remembered than neutral information.

Media Contacts:
Lara Schlaffke – RUB
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Boom Chack Boom—A multimethod investigation of motor inhibition in professional drummers”. Lara Schlaffke, Sarah Friedrich, Martin Tegenthoff, Onur Güntürkün, Erhan Genç, Sebastian Ocklenburg.
Brain and Behavior doi:10.1002/brb3.1490.


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