Same Genes, Different Brains: Neuroanatomical Differences Between Monozygotic Twins Discordant for Musical Training

Cereb Cortex. 2018 Jan 1;28(1):387-394. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhx299.


Numerous cross-sectional and observational longitudinal studies show associations between expertise and regional brain anatomy. However, since these designs confound training with genetic predisposition, the causal role of training remains unclear. Here, we use a discordant monozygotic (identical) twin design to study expertise-dependent effects on neuroanatomy using musical training as model behavior, while essentially controlling for genetic factors and shared environment of upbringing. From a larger cohort of monozygotic twins, we were able to recruit 18 individuals (9 pairs) that were highly discordant for piano practice. We used structural and diffusion magnetic resonance imaging to analyze the auditory-motor network and within-pair differences in cortical thickness, cerebellar regional volumes and white-matter microstructure/fractional anisotropy. The analyses revealed that the musically active twins had greater cortical thickness in the auditory-motor network of the left hemisphere and more developed white matter microstructure in relevant tracts in both hemispheres and the corpus callosum. Furthermore, the volume of gray matter in the left cerebellar region of interest comprising lobules I-IV + V, was greater in the playing group. These findings provide the first clear support for that a significant portion of the differences in brain anatomy between experts and nonexperts depend on causal effects of training.

Keywords: MRI; expertise; music; neuroanatomy; twins.

Publication types

  • Twin Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality
  • Genetic Association Studies
  • Gray Matter / anatomy & histology
  • Gray Matter / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Music*
  • Organ Size
  • Practice, Psychological
  • Professional Competence*
  • Twins, Monozygotic
  • White Matter / anatomy & histology
  • White Matter / diagnostic imaging