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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Just Juggle And Be A Topper!

Researchers at Oxford University have found that complicated tasks, like if you learn juggling, produces significant changes to the structure of the brain.
The work, appearing in the journal Nature Neuroscience, finds a 5% increase in white matter, the so-called cabling of the brain. Earlier work has shown changes due to experience in our grey matter, where processing and computation happens; enhancements in the white matter of the healthy adult brain haven't been demonstrated, until now.
The subjects in this study were taught a complex visual/motor task, juggling three balls, and had brain scans at both the beginning and end of the study period.(Read More)

The participants were a group of 24 healthy adults, none of whom knew how to juggle before the research began. The subjects were divided into two groups - one of the groups had weekly training in juggling, and were instructed to practice an additional 30 minutes each day. The other group was told to do nothing out of the ordinary.
After the six weeks, the 12 jugglers could do at least two continuous cycles of a three ball juggling routine. Of course, their skill levels varied quite a bit.
For the brain scans, the team used a diffusion MRI that measures the movement of water molecules in the brain tissues. At the 6-week point, a 5% increase in white matter was found in the rear area of the brain known as the intraparietal sulcus in the jugglers.
This part of the brain has been shown to have nerves that react to reaching and grasping for objects in our peripheral vision. Even though some subjects were better jugglers than others, all of them showed the changes in white matter.
The researchers speculate that the time spent training and practicing is the key, rather than the level of skill the subjects had. Lead researcher Dr Heidi Johansen-Berg said, "MRI is an indirect way to measure brain structure and so we cannot be sure exactly what is changing when these people learn. Future work should test whether these results reflect changes in the shape or number of nerve fibres, or growth of the insulating myelin sheath surrounding the fibres."
The clinical applications of this research are, admittedly, quite a long way off. But they may hold promise for neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis, where these white matter areas become degraded. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, disabling neurodegenerative disease that appears in early adulthood, often between the ages of 20 to 40, and is believed to affect as many as 4 women to every man.
The symptoms are highly variable, and no one can predict precisely how your condition will progress. The good news is that there are strategies to help manage symptoms and improve function. Still much about MS is not clear - the cause being one of the most important areas where medicine needs to learn more and research continues.
"It's extremely exciting to see evidence that training changes human white matter connections," adds professor Cathy Price of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging. This latest finding compliments earlier work about changes in grey matter that come with training, and has scientists wondering about the cellular mechanisms that may be at work.
In the meantime, learning something new, complex and mentally challenging, might be just the thing to ensure a healthy, powerful brain. So, head into town and grab some balls and learn juggling to boost your brain.


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