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The Widening Gyrus

Concert pianists could be model organisms for studying the physiological basis of intellectual greatness

Charles T. Ambrose


Concert pianists represent a human model of highly integrated motor activity. The primary motor area for the hands and arms is in the precentral gyrus of the frontal lobe. If an fMRI of this area in trained pianists reveals increased blood flow, we may question whether it is due to neocapillaries induced earlier by an angiogenic peptide—similar to the macrophage-derived angiogenesis factor or tumor necrosis factor alpha. Angiogenesis has been studied extensively in certain brain tumors (glioblastomas) and recently in cases of stroke—both pathological conditions. This essay suggests a nonpathological function for angiogenesis in the healthy, stimulated brain.

Searching for a talent-linked angiogenic peptide (or peptides) in neurogenesis would be difficult using master pianists as the model. Concert performers are rare and revered and might resent neurochemical probing of their brains. Furthermore, the development of their enhanced motor skills takes place over many years of practice. This long interval might make identifying a putative angiogenic peptide difficult if it were present and active only with the inception of the new capillaries. On the other hand, it seems plausible, based on work such as Nottebohn’s birdsong studies mentioned above, that maintaining a high level of pianistic skill requires continuous stimulation by an angiogenic factor for preservation of an enhanced local capillary bed.

My fascination with this subject developed after attending a private performance by Dr. Paul Bachner, chair of pathology at the University of Kentucky and a gifted concert pianist. It would be interesting, if intrusive and perhaps unwelcomed, to determine if his pianistic skill is linked to high levels of a cerebral angiogenic peptide.


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