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Training, Experience Can Change How Brains Work

Study comparing conductors and non-musicians shows that tuning out distractions can be learned

MONDAY, Nov. 5 (HealthDay News) -- Training and experience can affect how a person's brain is organized, says a U.S. study that compared 20 music conductors and 20 people with no music training.

All the participants were between the ages of 28 and 40. The conductors had an average of more than 10 years experience as a band or orchestra director in middle or high school.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the participants' brain activity while they performed a difficult hearing task that involved listening for two tones. They had to keep their eyes opened while doing the task.

Initially, both the conductors and non-musicians showed reduced activity in the brain's visual processing area and increased activity in the auditory part of the brain. But as the task became harder, only the non-musicians tuned out more of their visual sense. This suggests that the conductors' music training and experience altered the way their brains work, the researchers said.

"Because the task was equally difficult for everybody, the difference observed between conductors and non-musicians must be related to a change in how they deal with irrelevant sensory information and not just their ability to do the task," lead author W. David Hairston, a postdoctoral fellow in radiology at the Advanced Neuroscience Imaging Research Laboratory at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., said in a prepared statement.

"In general, based on the non-musicians, we suggest that the brain actively increases how much information from other senses gets filtered out or ignored when you have to concentrate really hard on one sense," Hairston said.

He noted that conductors routinely must differentiate between subtle differences in sounds and often have to do this while reading scores and watching/communicating with their musicians. This leads to an ability to focus on a difficult auditory task without having to increase suppression of visual information.

The study results "show how the brain filters information from different senses is very flexible and adaptive and changes with the demands of the task at hand. Additionally, how this operates can change with highly specialized training and experience," Hairston said.

The study was presented Sunday at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego.

More information

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association explains how hearing works.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, news release, Nov. 4, 2007

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