Motor cortex and hand motor skills: structural compliance in the human brain

Hum Brain Mapp. 1997;5(3):206-15. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1097-0193(1997)5:3<206::AID-HBM5>3.0.CO;2-7.


Recent studies in humans and nonhuman primates have shown that the functional organization of the human sensorimotor cortex changes following sensory stimulation or following the acquisition of motor skills. It is unknown whether functional plasticity in response to the acquisition of new motor skills and the continued performance of complicated bimanual movements for years is associated with structural changes in the organization of the motor cortex. Professional musicians, especially keyboard and string players, are a prototypical group for investigating these changes in the human brain. Using magnetic resonance images, we measured the length of the posterior wall of the precentral gyrus bordering the central sulcus (intrasulcal length of the precentral gyrus, ILPG) in horizontal sections through both hemispheres of right-handed keyboard players and of an age- and handedness-matched control group. Lacking a direct in vivo measurement of the primary motor cortex in humans, we assumed that the ILPG is a measure of the size of the primary motor cortex. Left-right asymmetry in the ILPG was analyzed and compared between both groups. Whereas controls exhibited a pronounced left-larger-than-right asymmetry, keyboard players had more symmetrical ILPG. The most pronounced differences in ILPG between keyboard players and controls were seen in the most dorsal part of the presumed cortical hand representation of both hemispheres. This was especially true in the nondominant right hemispheres. The size of the ILPG was negatively correlated with age of commencement of musical training in keyboard players, supporting our hypothesis that the human motor cortex can exhibit functionally induced and long-lasting structural adaptations.