Neuroplasticity, Divers and the Athletic Brain

By Dan Peterson

Our last post here centered on neuroplasticity and the way that training creates real, visible changes in the brains of athletes.  We referenced a study of Chinese professional divers, who showed enlargement in certain brain areas associated with learning and processing movement.  Back in March, Wired magazine did a nice story summarizing the research:

In a new study published last month in PLoS ONE, a research team led by Jing Luo from the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences compared the brains of elite divers to those who were not involved in intense physical training or professional sport.

To offset the chances that differences found deep within the noggins of the group were due to anything other than athletic prowess, the researchers made sure all the subjects were right-handed, roughly the same age, and had the same amount of education.

By scanning the subjects in an MRI tube, the researchers were able to take high-resolution snapshots of the structure of the brain. Luo’s group then analyzed the scans, measuring the thickness of the outermost layers of the brain in different locales –- sections that previous studies had linked to learning and processing movement. The researchers indeed found distinct differences between the brains of elite athletes and their less-physically inclined counterparts.

The finding that the pro divers have beefier brains in these locations compared to non-athletes parallels research done in musicians, which confirmed that structural brain differences exist between experts and those who couldn’t play a lick.

It’s worth emphasizing that these differences are not vague, holistic differences in the brains of divers and the general population, but that these differences directly mirror the specific skills that the divers have worked to perfect over years and years and hours and hours of practice.  Divers, maybe more than just about any other type of athlete, must have incredibly fine control over and awareness of their bodies’ movements, as even slight deviations from perfection affect their score significantly.  If there was one area of the brain that one might expect to find a difference between the brain of a diver and an average person, it would be in one tied to the fine processing and learning of motor skills, and that is exactly what we find.

Of course, a correlation between diving skill and an enlarged brain area may just be indicative of a genetic difference that allowed those people to become expert divers, and that training may not have had anything to do with it.  To test this the researchers looked at the differences in the divers’ brains  as a function of how many years they had spent training:

However, in one of the brain areas studied, the researchers found that the number of years each athlete competed as a diver nearly predicted how thick the subject’s brain would be. If the results of this small study hold, there may be some biological truth to the adage, “practice makes perfect.” It’s as if each year of sports experience becomes neatly folded as a new layer of neurons atop previously mastered skills, physical knowledge, and competition know-how that have already been crammed into the brain.

Fascinating.  Chalk another one up for the propopents of deliberate practice.  Also, there was some great discussion in the comments section of the last post on neuroplasticity about deliberate practice vs. the need for adaptability and flexibility of skills.  It would be interesting to hear perspectives and responses to this research, as that balance may be different for sports that demand different types of skills.

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