The physical skill of juggling can change the brain’s structure and function for the better, and may be a recommended therapy for brain injuries.
Bogdan Draganski, now of University of Lausanne collaborated with University of Regensburg colleagues Volker Busch, Ulrich Bogdahn, and Gerhard Schuierer, and Arne May, now of University of Hamburg with Christian Gaser of University of Jena, to visualize brain plasticity among volunteers who learned to juggle.
Volunteers showed transient and selective structural changes in the left parietal lobe’s posterior cortex and bilateral central temporal areas brain, areas associated with processing and storing complex visual motion on used whole-brain magnetic-resonance imaging.
This study demonstrates that the brain’s macroscopic structure can change based on stimuli like juggling, rather than being limited to functional changes in the cortex.
May and Gaser collaborated with University of Hamburg colleagues Janina Boyke, Joenna Driemeyer, and Christian Büchel in related research.
This time, they trained 25 people with an average age of 60 years in juggling for 12 weeks, and 25 control group volunteers were not trained.
The team conducted three MRI brain scans for each participant:
- Before juggling practice
- After 3 months of juggling
- After another 3 months of no juggling.
Jugglers showed significant increase in the brain’s “gray matter,” nerve cells’ bodies responsible for information processing, located in the hippocampus (memory formation), bilateral nucleus accumbens (reward systems that may lead to action) and visual cortext’s middle temporal area.
Without practice during the three months after the training, none of the volunteers retained their ability to juggle and their gray matter declined to pre-training levels.
This suggests the value of continued practice in physical and cognitive skills to maintain brain structure and function.
University of Oxford’s Jan Scholz, Miriam Klein-Flügge, Timothy E.J. Behrens, and Heidi Johansen-Berg extended this research to demonstrate that people who learn to juggle also increased “white matter” containing axons that connect different cells, not just gray matter.
The Oxford team conducted baseline brain scans using diffusion tensor imaging to reveal white matter structure for 24 young men and women volunteers, who later practiced juggling for half an hour a day for six weeks.
The researchers compared brain scans of 24 non-juggling volunteers and found that the volunteer jugglers increased white matter in the parietal lobe’s intraparietal sulcus, which integrates vision and reaching and grasping in the periphery of vision.
Even less-skilled jugglers had similar increases in white matter, attributed to amount of time devoted to practice.
In contrast, the non-jugglers showed no changes in white matter after the six week period, suggesting value in practicing juggling to develop the brain’s structure and functioning to enable rapid, coordinated movement and body positioning.
Brain scans taken after four weeks without juggling practice showed that the new white matter remained and the amount of gray matter increased, showing some skill retention in the absence of consistent practice.
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