Learning new physical activities may help strengthen the brain in ways already learned activities can’t, according a Well blog by Gretchen Reynolds posted March 2 by the New York Times.
Reynolds has taken up snowboarding, and wrote that other new activities such as learning to juggle or swim in midlife could lead to increased myelination of neurons in motor cortexes, something once believed to slow or stop after childhood.
A 2014 study with mice cited by Reynolds found that when the mice were introduced to a complicated type of running wheel, in which the rungs were irregularly spaced so that the animals had to learn a new, stutter-step type of running, myelination increased. Myelination is the process by which parts of a brain cell are insulated, so that the messages between neurons can proceed more quickly and smoothly, Reynolds wrote. Animals that ran on normal wheels showed no myelination.
The study was published in Science in October 2014, by a team of researchers from the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research in London; the University of Melbourne in Australia; and Iwate Medical University in Morioka, Iwate, Japan.
John Krakauer, MD, a professor of neurology and director of the Center for the Study of Motor Learning and Brain Repair at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said while it was unknown if similar changes would take place in adult humans, it seems likely.
“Motor skills are as cognitively challenging” in their way as traditional brainteasers such as crossword puzzles or brain-training games, he said in the blog. So adding a new sport benefits your brain as well as providing the physical benefits of exercise.
Previous studies have shown learning a new physical skill in adulthood leads to increases in the volume of gray matter in parts of the brain related to movement control, Reynolds wrote. “We have a tendency to admire motor skills,” Krakauer, said in the blog. But most of us make little effort to hone our motor skills in adulthood, and we could be short-changing our brains, Reynolds wrote.
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