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Published: 03.08.2006, 06:00
Modified: 02.08.2006, 15:02
From disabled musician to neuroscientist in demand
When the fingers won’t play the tune

Victor Candia’s fingers suddenly suffered involuntary cramp when he started to prepare for his graduation concert. He was no longer able to play a faultless passage on his guitar. But instead of losing heart, he pored over books to discover what his symptoms were: focal hand dystonia, “musician’s cramp”. He learnt so much about the functioning of the human brain that he became a scientist in great demand. Candia now carries out research at the Collegium Helveticum.

Michael Bartnik

Victor Candia (born in 1966) grew up in the town of Puerto Montt in Southern Chile. He began to play music while still very young, and was given his first guitar at the age of five. When he was 15 his parents allowed him to go to Santiago to study at the University. It was a special program for budding musicians: he attended secondary school in the morning and in the afternoon he went to the Conservatory of Music at the Faculty of Arts.

Later he moved to the Catholic University where his brother was also studying. But he recalls that, “there wasn’t enough money for the expensive training for both of us.” Victor, by now 23, needed to think of something.

Santiago, New York, Trossingen

He tried to make his fortune in the USA. The only contribution his parents were able to give was the flight ticket. “I landed in New York with only a couple of dollars in my luggage and the address of a girl friend’s aunt – but she welcomed me like a son.” He gained a place to study at the Mannes College of Music in New York.

He went to Europe during the summer to find out about the world. “While I was still in Santiago an acquaintance told me I should visit her parents near Stuttgart.” After arriving in Germany and again being welcomed with open arms, he discovered that he would not receive any funding from Chile and would have a student grant in the USA that was much too small. This meant it was no longer possible to study in New York.

Arrived: Victor Candia now works in the Semper Observatory at the Collegium Helveticum. large

Candia recalls that “I learnt a sentence every day and after three months I started speaking only German at lunchtime.” After a year he obtained a place to study at the Trossingen College of Music in the State of Württemberg. He studied music for three years, with the guitar as his main subject.

His fingers failed shortly before the graduation concert

He bought a new instrument in Chile shortly before his final exam. However, when he took up the new guitar to practice, that was the end: “As I was playing, my fingers curled up involuntarily like a claw and went into cramp.”

Candia went from one doctor to another, but no-one could help him. “At that time I was much more distressed by not knowing what was wrong with me and what had caused it than by the fact that I was no longer able to play.” So he pored over books about psychology and neurology to find out about his symptoms: Focal Hand Dystonia or “musician’s cramp.” He became increasingly engrossed in the subject.

From musician to neuroscientist

Then in 1993 at the age of 27 he took his third chance, a psychology degree course at the University of Constance, “because they have a particular orientation towards biology there”. Then, in a lecture by Thomas Elbert, who was subsequently his doctoral supervisor, the crucial realisation dawned on him: “It must have something to do with the representation of movements and sensory impressions in the brain.”


Victor Candia’s passions are research and music. large

Once again Candia was lucky: during his practical training at the University of Constance Clinic he was able to devote himself totally to his research project: a therapy to treat focal hand dystonia. A year later he published his first scientific paper together with Thomas Elbert.

Musician’s cramp: the cause is in the brain

Obviously the cause of the illness lies in the brain rather than in the muscles: a high level of neuronal activity promotes the growth of nerve cell connections. Areas of the brain that are frequently used become enlarged. Exactly like other parts of the body, the fingers are also represented on the cerebral cortex in the region for bodily perception and movement control, on the sensory and motor cortex.

In focal hand dystonia the co-ordination between the cortex and the locomotor system malfunctions. As a possible cause, it is assumed that the corresponding regions of the image become so enlarged that they overlap, thus triggering adjacent motor functions: the middle finger ought to move but the ring finger is activated as well.

Intensive practice can do harm

Excessively intensive practice can be devastating. In addition there is no warning signal and no pain beforehand. The cramp can strike not just musicians but also secretaries, watchmakers or surgeons – i.e. anyone who repeatedly performs complex movement patterns.

Incorrect movement programs become etched into the memory and are difficult to change. Candia’s therapy aims at interrupting the faulty pattern and replacing it with a new one. The idea occurred to him while he was experimenting with his own hand: the fingers are immobilised with a splint. This takes the fingers out of their cramped position and they are able to rehearse a new movement pattern.

The therapy shows successes

The initial successes of the therapy become apparent after only a short time but the exercises must be persevered with for months or years. In one study Candia was able to show that the therapy leads to physiological changes in the brain: fewer nerve cells are active in the affected regions of the brain after the treatment.

Now the father of a family, Candia has been a member of the scientific staff at the Collegium Helveticum for a year. In the Interdisciplinary Research Institute of the University and ETH Zurich, scientists from a wide variety of subject areas are currently working on “the role of the emotions in human behaviour and their significance in the establishment of social norms.”

The Collegium: sharper focus on one’s own identity

Candia calls this position his “most exciting”. He is pleased at the integration with researchers who speak different languages about a shared topic. “I work next door to colleagues who can potentially answer all the questions one has ever asked but which one can never answer through one’s own efforts alone. We do not relinquish our own identity as scientists, on the contrary we preserve it and expand it through the new viewpoints gained from the interdisciplinary work.”

Candia has not taken up his guitar again for many years. He now concentrates fully on his research. That’s also why he has not yet really completed his own therapy either.

Collegium Helveticum:
More about Focal Hand Dystonia, Victor Candia and his research colleague Eckart Altenmüller:
The paper “Changing the Brain through Therapy for Musicians’ Hand Dystonia” was published in: Annals New York Academy of Sciences 1060: 335–342 (2005).

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