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Changing the Brain through Music: Genes or Environment?

Changing the Brain through Music: Genes or Environment?

Research Topic
Hosted By:
Sarah J. Wilson, University of Melbourne, Australia
Deadline for abstract submission: 31 Oct 2012
Deadline for full article submission: 30 Apr 2013
For centuries, the role of talent versus training in the expression of musical abilities has intrigued musicians and researchers alike. Historically, skilled musicianship was attributed to divine endowment or familial inheritance, with the brains of eminent musicians examined at autopsy to uncover anomalies that may underlie their exceptional abilities. More recently, deliberate practice has been suggested to account almost exclusively for skilled musicianship, with the milestone of 10,000 practice hours serving as a marker of expertise. Thus, whether musicians are born or made remains hotly debated, with surprisingly little empirical research into the relative contributions of genes and environment in emerging musicianship. 

Mapping the human genome has opened up a new scientific frontier and brought more sophisticated techniques to probe the complex interactions between nature and nurture. These interactions occur over the course of development, and involve dynamic and bidirectional influences between genetic processes, the brain, and the environment that ultimately shape an individual’s cognitive and behavioural skills. If musicianship has a significant genetic component, then research is needed to identify those skills that are most likely inherited, with impaired pitch perception (amusia), or conversely absolute pitch (AP) ability having already been targeted. Research is also needed to identify the most strategic and rigorous methods for defining candidate phenotypes that will lead to successful genetic mapping studies. 

There are now over 100 music neuroimaging studies from which it is clear that the brains of musicians and nonmusicians differ. These relate to size, morphology, density, connectivity, and function that occur throughout the brain and support a range of cognitive processes that are often improved in musicians. As we move forward, a challenge for research is to address the causal direction of these differences. Does becoming a musician cause the brain to change, or do musicians have different brains to begin with? Longitudinal research designs with repeated testing before and after training allow the influence of the environment to be carefully examined, including the ability of the brain to reorganise in response to experience (training-induced neuroplasticity). However, individual differences in response to such training remain poorly understood, as do the components of music training essential to induce change, or the optimal age of onset and the amount of training required. 

This special research topic raises many fundamental issues and as yet unsolved challenges, for which solutions will ultimately advance the field. It aims to draw on the thinking and research findings of salient researchers who have been working towards solutions, and in so doing, are inspiring the field. We invite researchers to submit a paper that either presents new findings relevant to the research topic, or reviews conceptual issues that have arisen from the work of their group to date. Topics covered could include, but are not limited to: 

1. Conceptual reviews that consider the question 'Are musicians born or made?' from an evolutionary, historical, genetic, neuroscientific, developmental, behavioural, educational, ethnomusicological, clinical, or methodological perspective. 

2. Original research articles that present new empirical findings relating to the genetic basis of music skills, methods for defining music phenotypes, environmental influences on music abilities, changes in behaviour, brain structure and/or function in response to music training, training parameters or regimens that improve music skills, individual differences in response to music training, plus other relevant topics identified by researchers. These articles may use differing approaches, and where possible, should focus on areas that have received less empirical res
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