Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Evidence in animals and humans indicates that there are sensitive periods during development, times when experience or stimulation has a greater influence on behavior and brain structure. Sensitive periods are the result of an interaction between maturational processes and experience-dependent plasticity mechanisms. Previous work from our laboratory has shown that adult musicians who begin training before the age of 7 show enhancements in behavior and white matter structure compared with those who begin later. Plastic changes in white matter and gray matter are hypothesized to co-occur; therefore, the current study investigated possible differences in gray matter structure between early-trained (ET; <7) and late-trained (LT; >7) musicians, matched for years of experience. Gray matter structure was assessed using voxel-wise analysis techniques (optimized voxel-based morphometry, traditional voxel-based morphometry, and deformation-based morphometry) and surface-based measures (cortical thickness, surface area and mean curvature). Deformation-based morphometry analyses identified group differences between ET and LT musicians in right ventral premotor cortex (vPMC), which correlated with performance on an auditory motor synchronization task and with age of onset of musical training. In addition, cortical surface area in vPMC was greater for ET musicians. These results are consistent with evidence that premotor cortex shows greatest maturational change between the ages of 6–9 years and that this region is important for integrating auditory and motor information. We propose that the auditory and motor interactions required by musical practice drive plasticity in vPMC and that this plasticity is greatest when maturation is near its peak.