Your brain on drums

Neil Peart, drummer for Rush

In February 1997 the members of the Canadian rock trio Rush were invested as officers of the Order of Canada. The trio’s extraordinary drummer and lyricist Neil Peart was renowned for his technical proficiency, energy, and stamina. Neil retired from his musical career in 2016 because of health problems, and died at age 67, on 7 January 2020 after a 3½-year battle with a brain tumor (glioblastoma). His chosen instrument and talent put him in a unique group; drummers have the remarkable ability to perform complex tasks with their four limbs independently. 

In a recently published study,[1] multimethod neuroimaging was used to investigate the structural, functional, and biochemical features of drummers’ fine motor behavior. Earlier studies of other types of musicians examined changes in the gray matter of the cortex (regions responsible for perception, memory, speech, and other functions). When a right-handed person carries out a task with the right hand, the left hemisphere typically regulates it. Motor functions of the left hand (in a right-handed person) are controlled by both sides. The drummer study focused on white matter, principally the corpus callosum, which connects the brain hemispheres. 

The study showed a distinct difference in the structure of the corpus callosum in drummers. The researchers believe that their anterior corpus callosum contains fewer fibers, but these fibers are thicker than those in the nondrummer control subjects. Prior studies have shown that thicker fibers were associated with quicker communication between the two hemispheres. Thus a more efficient anterior section of the corpus callosum leads to better performance, at least in drumming. It connects cortical areas that are involved in decision making during voluntary movements as well as execution of motor activities. 

The findings are certainly of interest to neuroscientists but they may already have clinical and industrial importance. The paper suggests that “learning of complex motor tasks could lead to substantial restructuring in cortical motor networks.” The principles may be applicable to training in certain occupations and in rehabilitation of patients with various motor disorders, particularly stroke patients.

About 50 years ago, for reasons I cannot now fathom, I took three or four drumming lessons, then I took home a secondhand foot drum, bass drum, snare drum, and high hat cymbal. My family was both overwhelmed—too much noise—and entirely underwhelmed—little rhythm, no entertainment. To make peace I turned to quieter preoccupations and I donated the drum set to the Salvation Army. Had I only known that scientific evidence would later indicate that drumming makes one’s brain more motor efficient.
—George Szasz, CM, MD

1.    Schlaffke L, Friedrich S, Tegenthoff M, et al. Boom chack boom—a multimethod investigation of motor inhibition in professional drummers. Brain Behavior 2020;10:e01490 

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

Photo from public domain: Click here to view

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