Tag Archives: juggling brain plasticity

New research on juggling

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As I’m sure many of you already know, learning to juggle is associated with greater gray matter density in parts of the brain that control motion perception and hand-eye coordination. Not juggling for a long time tends to lead to the brain reverting back to “normal”(though some evidence suggests some brain changes are retained).

I’ve long wondered though if skill level when it comes to juggling is correlated with more gray matter. Earlier research has shown that even lousy jugglers have more gray matter in certain parts of the brain when compared to controls. Now more recent research shows that expert juggling is in fact correlated with higher gray matter density, compared to less skilled juggling. According to Juggling revisited – A voxel-based morphometry study with expert jugglers:

Juggling is a highly interesting tool to investigate neuroplasticity associated with motor-learning. Several brain-imaging studies have reported changes in regional brain morphology in visual association cortices in individuals learning how to juggle a three-ball cascade. However, to our knowledge there are no studies that investigated expert jugglers, looking for specific features in regional brain morphology related to this highly specialized skill. Using T1-weighted images and voxel-based morphometry we investigated in a cross-sectional study design 16 expert jugglers, able to juggle at least five balls and an age- and gender-matched group of non-jugglers. We hypothesized that expert jugglers would show higher gray matter density in regions involved in visual motion perception and eye-hand coordination. Images were pre-processed and analyzed using SPM8. Age was included in the analyses as covariate of no interest. As compared to controls jugglers displayed several clusters of higher, regional gray matter density in the occipital and parietal lobes including the secondary visual cortex, the hMT+/V5 area bilaterally and the intraparietal sulcus bilaterally. Within the jugglers group we also found a correlation between performance and regional gray matter density in the right hMT+/V5 area. Our study provides evidence that expert jugglers show increased gray matter density in brain regions involved in visual motion perception and eye-hand coordination, i.e. brain areas that have previously been shown to undergo dynamic changes in terms of gray matter increases in subjects learning a basic three-ball cascade. The extent to which transient increases in beginners and the differences in experts and non-experts are based on the same neurobiological correlates remains to be fully elucidated.

This isn’t that surprising. Similar brain changes can result from learning to play an instrument or learning to dance. Now if only they would do some research on joggling!

Golf, Juggling and neural plasticity

The process of learning a new skill often results in subtle changes in brain structure, roughly analogous to muscle growth in response to strength-training. This happens in response to learning how to juggle, but this also appears to happen in response to learning to play golf, and, in my opinion, also happens in response to other sports.

According to Training-induced neural plasticity in golf novices, by the University of Zurich:

Previous neuroimaging studies in the field of motor learning have shown that learning a new skill induces specific changes of neural gray and white matter in human brain areas necessary to control the practiced task. Former longitudinal studies investigating motor skill learning have used strict training protocols with little ecological validity rather than physical leisure activities, although there are several retrospective and cross-sectional studies suggesting neuroprotective effects of physical leisure activities. In the present longitudinal MRI study, we used voxel-based morphometry to investigate training-induced gray matter changes in golf novices between the age of 40 and 60 years, an age period when an active life style is assumed to counteract cognitive decline. As a main result, we demonstrate that 40 h of golf practice, performed as a leisure activity with highly individual training protocols, are associated with gray matter increases in a task-relevant cortical network encompassing sensorimotor regions and areas belonging to the dorsal stream. A new and striking result is the relationship between training intensity (time needed to complete the 40 training hours) and structural changes observed in the parieto-occipital junction. Thus, we demonstrate that a physical leisure activity induces training-dependent changes in gray matter and assume that a strict and controlled training protocol is not mandatory for training-induced adaptations of gray matter.

Not earth-shattering news by any means, except for the part at the end about the relationship between training intensity and brain changes. This study simply reinforces what we already know, that playing sports and staying active can help the brain(I know, some people don’t consider golf to be a sport, but it does require skill). It would be great to compare the results of playing golf with juggling, but as far as I am concerned, no one has done this.

As for me, I never play golf since I find it boring and it is not intense enough. But that’s just me. I prefer juggling, joggling and hiking. An advantage of juggling is you can do it almost anywhere, even while running.

Whatever you do, if you want to protect your brain from aging, learn a new athletic skill. Try as many different sports or activities as possible until you find something that you love doing. The journey is as important as the destination. If you can’t find something you like, invent a new sport!