How does Sports Training Restructure the Brain?

Originally published on the PLOS Neuroscience Community

The impact of regular exercise on the body is obvious. It improves cardiovascular fitness, increases strength and tones muscle. While these transformations are visible to the naked eye, changes to brain structure and function by physical activity occur behind the scenes and are therefore less understood. It’s not news that the brain is wonderfully plastic, dynamically reorganizing in response to every sensory, motor or cognitive experience. One might imagine therefore, that elite athletes–who train rigorously to perfect specialized movements–undergo robust neural adaptations that support, or reflect, their exceptional neuromuscular skills. Different sports, invoking different movements, will target unique neural substrates, but most physical activities similarly rely on regions that are key for eliciting, coordinating and controlling movement, such as the motor cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia. In a new study published in Experimental Brain Research, Yu-Kai Chang and colleagues explored how microstructure in the basal ganglia reflects training and skill specialization of elite athletes.

Runners, martial artists and weekend warriors

The study enrolled groups of elite runners and elite martial artists, along with a control group of non-athletes who only engaged in occasional, casual exercise. Although both groups of athletes were highly trained (averaging over four hours of training daily), their uniquely specialized skills were key for determining whether basal ganglia structure varied by sport or by athletic training generally. The groups did not differ in terms of basic physical attributes, demographics or intelligence, but as expected, the athletes were more physically fit than the controls.

Measuring microstructure

The researchers focused on the basal ganglia, a set of nuclei comprising the caudate, putamen, globus pallidus, substantia nigra and subthalamic nuclei, since these structures serve critical roles in preparing for and executing movements and learning motor skills.

Structures of the basal ganglia

Structures of the basal ganglia

They used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which measures how water flows and diffuses within the brain. Since water diffusion is determined by neural features like axon density and myelination, it is more sensitive to finer-scale brain structure than traditional MRI approaches that measure the size or shape of brain regions. Fractional anisotropy (FA) and mean diffusivity (MD) are common metrics to assess, respectively, the directionality and amount of diffusion. Typically, higher FA and lower MD are thought to reflect higher integrity or greater organization of white matter.

Globus pallidus restructures in athletes

The basal ganglia microstructure of the athletes and controls were remarkably similar, with one exception. The internal globus pallidus showed lower FA and a trend for higher MD in the athletes than the non-athletes, but there were no differences between the runners and martial artists.

This result in intriguing for two reasons. First, it’s notable that both athletic groups showed a similar magnitude difference from non-athletes. Thus, acquiring and refining skilled movements more generally, rather than any particular movement pattern unique to running or martial arts, may restructure the globus pallidus. As study author Erik Chang explains,

“With the current results, we can only speculate that the experience of high intensity sport training, but not sport-specific factors, would trigger the localized changes in DTI indices we observed.”

This would make sense, considering the area is an important output pathway of the basal ganglia, broadly critical for learning and controlling movements. It’s likely that other regions may undergo more specialized adaptations to sport-specific training. Chang expects that future studies using a whole-brain approach with “distinctions between sport types and reasonable sample size would find cross-sectional differences or longitudinal changes in brain structure related to motor skill specialization.”

Second, although we expect athletic training to enhance regional brain structure, the reduced FA and increased MD observed in these elite athletes would commonly be considered signs of reduced white matter integrity. This is somewhat surprising in light of other studies reporting positive correlations between physical fitness and white matter integrity in non-professional athletes and children. But as Chang points out, “Professional sport experience is quite different from leisure training.” Although unexpected, this finding aligns well with similar reports that intensive training in dancersmusicians and multilinguals is associated with reduced gray or white matter volume or reduced FA. Why would this be? For starters, DTI doesn’t directly measure axonal integrity or myelination–only water diffusion. So while sports training has some clearly reorganizing effect on basal ganglia, we can’t yet infer what changes are occurring at the neuronal level. One interesting possibility is that the development of such expertise involves neuronal reorganization or pruning as circuits become more specialized and efficient. Chang cautions that their findings “could reflect the manifestation of an array of factors, including increased neural efficiency, altered cortical iron concentration in the elite athletes, or other training-specific/demographic variables.”

In the broader context, this study is a striking example of why care is warranted in interpreting neuroplasticity. Depending on the study conditions, the same intervention–here, athletic training–can apparently remodel the brain in opposing directions. This is an important reminder that although we like to assume that bigger is better in terms of brain structure, this is not always true, highlighting the need to more deeply explore exactly how and why these neural adaptations occur. Chang eagerly anticipates that future studies incorporating “HARDI (High-angular-resolution diffusion imaging) and Q-ball vector analysis, together with larger sample sizes and longitudinal design, will be very helpful in revealing finer microscopic structural differences among different types of elite athletes.”

References

Chang YK, Tsai JH, Wang CC and Chang EC (2015). Structural differences in basal ganglia of elite running versus martial arts athletes: a diffusion tensor imaging study. Exp Brain Res. doi: 10.1007/s00221-015-4293-x

Chaddock-Heyman L, et al. (2014). Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children. Cortex. 54:179-89. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2014.02.014

Elmer S, Hänggi J and Jäncke L (2014). Processing demands upon cognitive, linguistic, and articulatory functions promote grey matter plasticity in the adult multilingual brain: Insights from simultaneous interpreters. Front Hum Neurosci. 8:584. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00584

Hänggi J, Koeneke S, Bezzola L and Jäncke L (2010). Structural neuroplasticity in the sensorimotor network of professional female ballet dancers. Hum Brain Mapp. 31(8):1196-206. doi:10.1002/hbm.20928

Imfeld A, et al. (2009). White matter plasticity in the corticospinal tract of musicians: a diffusion tensor imaging study. Neuroimage. 46(3):600-7. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.02.025

Tseng BY, et al. (2013). White matter integrity in physically fit older adults. Neuroimage. 82:510-6. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.06.011

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