The researchers used a helmet-like device with more than 200 sensors to detect magnetic fields in the brain. The non-invasive system allowed them to measure changes in the field in both musicians and non-musicians. Simply touching the fingers of the participants stimulated the brain.
"We found very well pronounced changes," he says. The magnetic field in the section of the brain that analyzes tactile signals from the fingers of the left hand was far stronger among the violinists than it was among non-musicians.
"So music does something to us, and to our brain," he says.
Tracking Child Musicians
Now, Pantev has moved on to another area. The human brain is more "plastic," or malleable, when we are young than when we are old. So Pantev has teamed up with professors Larry E. Roberts and Laurel Trainor of nearby McMaster University to measure the change in children's brains when they first begin studying music.
Aided by a $200,000 grant from the California-based International Foundation for Music Research, the scientists will spend at least two years monitoring children who are enrolled in the Suzuki School of Music in Toronto. The children, aged 4 to 6, will be compared to children of similar background and intelligence who have never studied music.
The non-invasive helmet will allow the researchers to measure changes in the overall magnetic field generated by activity within the brain over the two-year period.
"You can measure the magnetic field distribution over the whole head," he says. "And from this we can calculate the prime function of the change, and the special location of the source."
In other words, is the change the result of greater demands on the left hand than the right among budding violinists, and what is happening inside the brain to facilitate that adaptation to the learning process?
The long range goal of the research, and it is long range indeed, is to figure out if learning — be it music or any other demanding task — can equip the mind to deal better with such things as mental illness. Can learning something force the brain to "increase its resources" by tapping into the neuron pool and redeploying those that are underutilized?
Pantev thinks the answer is probably yes, but he says that's only "intuition" at this point.
"We know we have a lot of work to do," he says.
It may well be that music is quite different from most other learning experiences. No one becomes an accomplished artist overnight. It takes years of hard work, self-discipline, and a high level of concentration to reach the point where the room doesn't empty when the student picks up the violin.
And it may be, if Pantev's "intuition" is right, that a lot more is going on there than simply learning how to make music.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.