Brain Structure and Function

, Volume 224, Issue 9, pp 3229–3246 | Cite as

The descending motor tracts are different in dancers and musicians

  • Chiara GiacosaEmail author
  • Falisha J. Karpati
  • Nicholas E. V. Foster
  • Krista L. Hyde
  • Virginia B. Penhune
Original Article


Long-term motor training, such as dance or gymnastics, has been associated with increased diffusivity and reduced fiber coherence in regions including the corticospinal tract. Comparisons between different types of motor experts suggest that experience might result in specific structural changes related to the trained effectors (e.g., hands or feet). However, previous studies have not segregated the descending motor pathways from different body-part representations in motor cortex (M1). Further, most previous diffusion tensor imaging studies used whole-brain analyses based on a single tensor, which provide poor information about regions where multiple white matter (WM) tracts cross. Here, we used multi-tensor probabilistic tractography to investigate the specific components of the descending motor pathways in well-matched groups of dancers, musicians and controls. To this aim, we developed a procedure to identify the WM regions below the motor representations of the head, hand, trunk and leg that served as seeds for tractography. Dancers showed increased radial diffusivity (RD) in comparison with musicians, in descending motor pathways from all the regions, particularly in the right hemisphere, whereas musicians had increased fractional anisotropy (FA) in the hand and the trunk/arm motor tracts. Further, dancers showed larger volumes compared to both other groups. Finally, we found negative correlations between RD and FA with the age of start of dance or music training, respectively, and between RD and performance on a melody task, and positive correlations between RD and volume with performance on a whole-body dance task. These findings suggest that different types of training might have different effects on brain structure, likely because dancers must coordinate movements of the entire body, whereas musicians focus on fewer effectors.


Neuroplasticity Motor training Probabilistic tractography Descending motor pathways or corticospinal tract or pyramidal tracts White matter Dance and music 



We would like to thank our participants for their time, Jennifer Bailey, Emily Coffey and Jamila Andoh for their assistance in the recruiting and testing process. This work was funded by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC) to Dr. Krista Hyde (238670).


This work was funded by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC) to Dr. Krista Hyde (238670).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and research committee and were approved by the Research Ethics Board at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.

Informed consent

Written informed consent was obtained from all participants included in the study. Participants were compensated for their participation.

Supplementary material


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (BRAMS)MontrealCanada
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyConcordia UniversityMontrealCanada
  3. 3.Faculty of MedicineMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyUniversity of MontrealMontrealCanada

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