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Williams Syndrome, the Brain, and Music

with Williams syndrome. In their study, the researchers tried to answer the question of whether an atypical development of the planum temporale, which is part of the temporal lobe and thought to be involved many auditory tasks, including perfect pitch, may underlie the unusual musical and language skills.

First author Mark Eckert, formerly at Stanford and now an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, and his colleagues used data from brain scans of 42 individuals with Williams syndrome and 40 control participants to compare the surface folds of the planum temporale. In most people, the structure, a slender inch-long piece of tissue, is larger on the left side of the brain than the right.

In people with Williams syndrome, however, both sides tended toward symmetry. “There are different possible explanations: Either the left side didn’t grow enough or the right side grew larger than usual,” says Galaburda. The folding pattern, in particular one groove called the Sylvian fissure, pointed to an increase size of the right planum temporale.

But size alone might not explain the unusual auditory strengths of people with Williams syndrome. A more general explanation includes variations in the connectivity of certain brain regions that might contribute to the specific strengths and weaknesses in Williams syndrome.”

In recent studies, Galaburda had found that cells in the primary visual cortex of carriers of the Williams deletion are smaller and more densely packed -- allowing for fewer connections between cells. Neurons in the primary auditory cortex, on the other hand, were larger and loosely packed, denoting increased “connectedness.”

“These differences in cell size and density may underlie the strengths in auditory phonology, language and possibly music, and the difficulties in visual spatial construction for primary visual areas,” says Bellugi, adding, “This is really just part of the ov
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