The process of learning to play a musical instrument necessarily alters the functional organisation of the cortical motor areas that are involved in generating the required movements. In the case of the harp, the demands placed on the motor system are quite specific. During performance, all digits with the sole exception of the little finger are used to pluck the strings. With a view to elucidating the impact of having acquired this highly specialized musical skill on the characteristics of corticospinal projections to the intrinsic hand muscles, focal transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was used to elicit motor evoked potentials (MEPs) in three muscles (of the left hand): abductor pollicis brevis (APB); first dorsal interosseous (FDI); and abductor digiti minimi (ADM) in seven harpists. Seven non-musicians served as controls. With respect to the FDI muscle – which moves the index finger, the harpists exhibited reliably larger MEP amplitudes than those in the control group. In contrast, MEPs evoked in the ADM muscle – which activates the little finger, were smaller in the harpists than in the non-musicians. The locations on the scalp over which magnetic stimulation elicited discriminable responses in ADM also differed between the harpists and the non-musicians. This specific pattern of variation in the excitability of corticospinal projections to these intrinsic hand muscles exhibited by harpists is in accordance with the idiosyncratic functional demands that are imposed in playing this instrument.
Bibliographical noteAccepted 25 Nov 2015
- Use-dependent plasticity
- Brain stimulation mapping
- Motor cortex
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation