Anyone who has ever tried to serve a tennis ball or flip a pancake or even play a video game knows, it is hard to perform the same motion over and over again. But don’t beat yourself up—errors resulting from variability in motor function is a feature, not a bug, of our nervous system and play a critical role in learning, research suggests.
Variability in a tennis serve, for example, allows a player to see the effects of changing the toss of the ball, the swing of the racket, or the angle of the serve—all of which may lead to a better performance. But what if you’re serving ace after ace after ace? Variability in this case would not be very helpful.
If variability is good for learning but bad when you want to repeat a successful action, the brain should be able to regulate variability based on recent performance. But how?
Anyone who trains for a marathon knows that individual running workouts add up over time to yield a big improvement in physical fitness. So, it should not be surprising that the cognitive benefits from workouts also accumulate to yield long-term cognitive gains. Yet, until now, there was has been little research to describe and support the underlying neurobiology. In new work being presented this week about the effects of exercise on the brain at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) in San Francisco, researchers are finding that brain changes that occur after a single workout are predictive of what happens with sustained physical training over time.
“There is a strong and direct link between physical activity and how your brain works,” says Wendy Suzuki of New York University (NYU), who is chairing a symposium on the topic at CNS. “People still do not link physical health to brain and cognitive health; they think about fitting into a bikini or losing that last pound, not about all the brain systems they are improving and enhancing every time they work out.”
Researchers at Dalhousie University have found that frailty, more so than amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain, is a key risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
PhD candidate Lindsay Wallace, lead author, and her supervisor Dr. Kenneth Rockwood, are optimistic their findings will be influential, as they were published this week in Lancet Neurology — one of the highest-impact journals in the field.
This study is the first to examine amyloid plaques and tangles in post-mortem brain tissues, in relation to both the subjects’ frailty index and the severity of their dementia symptoms when they were alive. The frailty index is a score of relative frailty based on the accumulation of deficits in physical health and ability to function.
People who move around more have sharper brains than couch potatoes, even well into old age and even if they already have some brain deterioration, researchers reported Wednesday.
The research helps answer a big question of whether exercise prevents dementia, or whether people with dementia-related damage to their brains move less because of that damage.
The new findings indicate that exercise and other activity helps preserve memory and brain function despite the various damage that leads to dementia, including hardened arteries and the brain-clogging plaques that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
At 65, Arthur Halls is dealing with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, severe angina, coronary blockage of the heart and hypertension – together these things have severely impacted his way of life. “Two years ago, there was very little I could do,” says Halls. “With your lungs and your heart and that, you’ve got to be very very careful.”
But that changed after he began fall-prevention therapy with the Medical Interactive Recovery System, or Mira, which uses video games for physical rehabilitation. Through a series of games that get users to do the kind of moves they’d normally be doing in physiotherapy, Halls feels like he can do a lot more.
“It’s about building the confidence up,” he says. “Now I have the confidence to do these games without any serious damage, unless I was very stupid and did something strenuous.”
Exercise is just as good for the brain as it is for the body, a growing body of research is showing. And one kind in particular—aerobic exercise—appears to be king.
“Back in the day, the majority of exercise studies focused on the parts of the body from the neck down, like the heart and lungs,” says Ozioma Okonkwo, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “But now we are finding that we need to go north, to the brain, to show the true benefits of a physically active lifestyle on an individual.”
Exercise might be a simple way for people to cut down their risk for memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease, even for those who are genetically at risk for the disease. In a June study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Okonkwo followed 93 adults who had at least one parent with Alzheimer’s disease, at least one gene linked to Alzheimer’s, or both. People in the study who spent at least 68 minutes a day doing moderate physical activity had better glucose metabolism—which signals a healthy brain—compared to people who did less.
A study from researchers at Indiana University in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical has found differences in the brains of athletes who participate in contact sports compared to those who participate in noncontact sports.
The differences were observed as both groups were given a simple visual task. The results could suggest that a history of minor but repeated blows to the head can result in compensatory changes to the brain as it relates to eye movement function. Or it could show how the hundreds of hours that contact sport players spend on eye-hand coordination skills leads to a reorganization of the brain in the areas dedicated to eye movements.
While more research is needed, senior author Nicholas Port said the findings contribute important information to research on subconcussive blows—or “microconcussions”—that are common in sports such as football, soccer, ice hockey, snowboarding and skiing. Interest in subconcussions has grown significantly in recent years as the long- and short-term risks of concussions—or mild traumatic brain injury—have become more widely known and understood.
A Canadian study published in JAMA turns the current thinking on postconcussion physical activity on its head. According to researchers, early return to physical activity within 1 week of concussion may actually decrease the likelihood of persistent symptoms in the pediatric population.
The prospective cohort study included 2,413 children and adolescents between the ages of 5 and 18 years. At 7 days and at 28 days postinjury, participants filled out questionnaires about their physical activity and rated their postconcussion symptoms using the Post-Concussion Symptom Inventory. Of the respondents, 30.5% rested for the first 7 days, and 69.5% participated in some sort of physical activity, including light aerobic exercise, sport-specific exercise, noncontact drills, full-contact practice, or full competition.
Legislation that recognizes the ability of physical therapists (PTs) to make return-to-play decisions for youth sports participants has been reintroduced in the US Senate and House of Representatives.
Called the Supporting Athletes, Families, and Educators to Protect the Lives of Athletic Youth Act (SAFE PLAY Act), S. 436/H.R. 829 was introduced by Sen Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Reps Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) and Lois Capps (D-CA). Supporters, including APTA, believe the legislation could lead to better management and awareness of some necessary aspects of sports safety, including concussions among student athletes, their families, and their coaches.
A new study published in the journal Pediatrics asserts that when it comes to treatment for concussion, rest is a good thing–but it may be possible for adolescents to get too much of it.
In a paper e-published ahead of print on Jan.5, researchers report on findings from a study of 88 patients, aged 11 to 22, who reported to a Wisconsin emergency department (ED) and were diagnosed as having experienced concussion. Of that number, 43 were prescribed “usual care” of 1–2 days of rest followed by a gradual return to activity, while the remaining 45 participants were prescribed strict rest for 5 days (no school, work, or physical activity).
Assessments were performed in the ED and at 3 and 10 days after injury. Participants also completed activity diaries that included a 19-symptom Post Concussive Symptoms Scale (PCSS).What researchers found was that while neurocognitive and balance tests showed no significant differences in the groups as they recovered, 50% of the participants assigned to strict rest took an average of 3 days longer to report symptom resolution. Additionally, the strict rest group reported higher PCSS scores than the usual-care group.