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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 July, 2003, 23:06 GMT 00:06 UK
Dance drug 'enhances sense of touch'
Person playing the piano
Pianists' performance could be improved
People's ability to play the piano or read Braille could be enhanced by a technique using the dance drug speed, researchers have found.

German researchers were able to heighten volunteers' sense of touch by stimulating their fingertips then giving them amphetamine.

It was found the drug doubled sensitivity.

The researchers say their discovery could lead to similar treatments being developed to help the elderly or stroke patients in tasks such as buttoning up clothes.

We are at the beginning of an era where we can interact with the brain
Dr Hubert Dinse, Ruhr University, Bochum
They could even help improve the performance of concert pianists or the ability of blind people to read Braille.

Speed, which is a Class B drug, increases nerve activity and wakefulness.

The researchers, from the Ruhr University in Bochum, tested people's tactile sensitivity by seeing how well they could distinguish between feeling two pin pricks placed close together on the skin.

At some point, people can no longer feel two separate pressure points.

Volunteers were asked to wear an eight-millimetre disc which stimulated the tips of their right index fingers for three hours. They were then given amphetamine.

The pin prick test was then carried out for a second time, and volunteers were found to have greater tactile sensitivity.

The finger stimulation and the drug were both found to temporarily reorganise parts of the human brain by "shuffling" the junctions that link nerve cells.

This increased the number of brain cells involved in processing touch messages.

Amphetamine doubled the effect of the disc, but the effects faded after 24 hours.

And when the volunteers were given a drug which blocked the effects of amphetamine, the improvements were lost.

Improving learning

Dr Hubert Dinse, the neurologist who led the research, said: "We are at the beginning of an era where we can interact with the brain.

"We can apply what we know about brain plasticity to train it to alter behaviour.

"People are always trying to find ways to improve learning. What we tested is unconscious skill learning. How far could this carry to cognitive learning? That remains to be seen."

The research is published in the magazine Science.

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