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1.  The relationship between the age of onset of musical training and rhythm synchronization performance: validation of sensitive period effects 
A sensitive period associated with musical training has been proposed, suggesting the influence of musical training on the brain and behavior is strongest during the early years of childhood. Experiments from our laboratory have directly tested the sensitive period hypothesis for musical training by comparing musicians who began their training prior to age seven with those who began their training after age seven, while matching the two groups in terms of musical experience (Watanabe et al., 2007; Bailey and Penhune, 2010, 2012). Using this matching paradigm, the early-trained groups have demonstrated enhanced sensorimotor synchronization skills and associated differences in brain structure (Bailey et al., 2013; Steele et al., 2013). The current study takes a different approach to investigating the sensitive period hypothesis for musical training by examining a single large group of unmatched musicians (N = 77) and exploring the relationship between age of onset of musical training as a continuous variable and performance on the Rhythm Synchronization Task (RST), a previously used auditory-motor RST. Interestingly, age of onset was correlated with task performance for those who began training earlier, however, no such relationship was observed among those who began training in their later childhood years. In addition, years of formal training showed a similar pattern. However, individual working memory scores were predictive of task performance, regardless of age of onset of musical training. Overall, these results support the sensitive period hypothesis for musical training and suggest a non-linear relationship between age of onset of musical training and auditory-motor rhythm synchronization abilities, such that a relationship exists early in childhood but then plateaus later on in development, similar to maturational growth trajectories of brain regions implicated in playing music.
PMCID: PMC3843222  PMID: 24348323
musical training; sensitive period; brain development; early training; working memory
2.  Structural correlates of skilled performance on a motor sequence task 
The brain regions functionally engaged in motor sequence performance are well-established, but the structural characteristics of these regions and the fiber pathways involved have been less well studied. In addition, relatively few studies have combined multiple magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and behavioral performance measures in the same sample. Therefore, the current study used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), probabilistic tractography, and voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to determine the structural correlates of skilled motor performance. Further, we compared these findings with fMRI results in the same sample. We correlated final performance and rate of improvement measures on a temporal motor sequence task (TMST) with skeletonized fractional anisotropy (FA) and whole brain gray matter (GM) volume. Final synchronization performance was negatively correlated with FA in white matter (WM) underlying bilateral sensorimotor cortex—an effect that was mediated by a positive correlation with radial diffusivity. Multi-fiber tractography indicated that this region contained crossing fibers from the corticospinal tract (CST) and superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF). The identified SLF pathway linked parietal and auditory cortical regions that have been shown to be functionally engaged in this task. Thus, we hypothesize that enhanced synchronization performance on this task may be related to greater fiber integrity of the SLF. Rate of improvement on synchronization was positively correlated with GM volume in cerebellar lobules HVI and V—regions that showed training-related decreases in activity in the same sample. Taken together, our results link individual differences in brain structure and function to motor sequence performance on the same task. Further, our study illustrates the utility of using multiple MR measures and analysis techniques to specify the interpretation of structural findings.
PMCID: PMC3486688  PMID: 23125826
superior longitudinal fasciculus; individual differences; motor sequence performance; fractional anisotropy; diffusion tensor imaging; gray matter volume
3.  Volume of Left Heschl’s Gyrus and Linguistic Pitch Learning 
Research on the contributions of the human nervous system to language processing and learning has generally been focused on the association regions of the brain without considering the possible contribution of primary and adjacent sensory areas. We report a study examining the relationship between the anatomy of Heschl’s Gyrus (HG), which includes predominately primary auditory areas and is often found to be associated with nonlinguistic pitch processing and language learning. Unlike English, most languages of the world use pitch patterns to signal word meaning. In the present study, native English-speaking adult subjects learned to incorporate foreign pitch patterns in word identification. Subjects who were less successful in learning showed a smaller HG volume on the left (especially gray matter volume), but not on the right, relative to learners who were successful. These results suggest that HG, typically shown to be associated with the processing of acoustic cues in nonspeech processing, is also involved in speech learning. These results also suggest that primary auditory regions may be important for encoding basic acoustic cues during the course of spoken language learning.
PMCID: PMC2805072  PMID: 17652466
auditory cortex; auditory perception; Heschl’s Gyrus; language processing; speech learning; speech perception

Results 1-3 (3)