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Taking up the violin by the age of 12 may be the key to becoming a world-class performer. Age 13 is too late, scientists say in a study of how the brains of musicians adapt to their demanding art.

Edward Taub of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, said magnetic images of the brains of people who play stringed instruments show that larger and more complex neuron circuits form for violinists who started musical training at an early age than for those who began later in life."There is an abrupt change at between ages 12 and 13 that appears to be quite dramatic," said Taub. "What that is due to, we don't know."

He said string players who started studies between ages 3 and 12 showed no significant differences in their brain circuitry. But there was a distinctly reduced level of development in the brains of those who didn't start musical studies until after the age of 13, said Taub.

Taub is co-author of a study of musical brains published Friday in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The research conclusion is based on a study of a part of the brain cortex that detects sensory signals. Taub said specific parts of this brain structure receive signals from the fingers, the face and the torso. Sensations from the left side are detected on the right side of the brain and those from the right are reflected in the left side of the brain. This enables a direct comparison.

To test differences that could develop between the left and right hands, the scientists used nine musicians who play stringed instruments such as the violin. These instruments require a high level of dexterity for the left hand but less for the right.

The individual fingers were then stimulated once a second for 1,000 seconds with slight pressure from an air-driven device, while the response of the cerebral cortex was recorded and analyzed by a computer.

Similar readings were taken on six nonmusicians as controls.

The most widespread and complex response in the cortex was found for the left fingers among five string players who started their training before the age of 12. For four who started training between the ages of 13 and 20, the brain activity in response to the left finger stimulation was up to 60 percent less.

For the nonmusical controls, the response was up to 80 percent less.

Taub said the study measures the way the brain adapts to dexterity challenges and training.

"This is a response by the brain to the demands placed on the individual," he said. "It shows that the brain reorganizes itself to optimize the performance of the individual."

String players were used in the study because their art has an uneven demand for dexterity between the left and right hands. Fingers on the left hand must move rapidly on the strings to create different notes, while the main job of the right hand is to hold and stroke with the bow, a task requiring less finger dexterity.