Matter in hand: Jugglers have rewired brains

October 11, 2009,
Matter in hand: Jugglers have rewired brains
Learning to juggle enhances part of the white matter of the brain.

( -- Learning to juggle leads to changes in the white matter of the brain, an Oxford University study has shown.

The research, funded by the Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council and published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, appears to show improved connectivity in parts of the brain involved in making movements necessary to catch the balls.

‘We tend to think of the brain as being static, or even beginning to degenerate, once we reach adulthood,’ says Dr Heidi Johansen-Berg of the Department of Clinical Neurology, University of Oxford, who led the work. ‘In fact we find the structure of the brain is ripe for change. We’ve shown that it is possible for the brain to condition its own wiring system to operate more efficiently.’

The researchers at the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB) set out to see if changes in the white matter of the brain could be seen in healthy adults on learning a new task or skill.

White matter consists of the bundles of long nerve fibres that conduct electrical signals between nerve cells and connect different parts of the brain together, while the grey matter consists of the nerve cell bodies where the processing and computation in the brain is done. Changes in grey matter following new experiences and learning have been shown. But enhancements in white matter have not previously been demonstrated.

Measuring changes in white matter relied on assessing diffusion MRI images using new methods pioneered by the FMRIB centre at Oxford. The methods are able to compare anatomical features of white matter between individuals or over time.

‘We have demonstrated that there are changes in the white matter of the brain - the bundles of nerve fibres that connect different parts of the brain - as a result of learning an entirely new skill,’ explains Dr Johansen-Berg.

A group of young healthy adults, none of whom could juggle, was divided into two groups each of 24 people. One of the groups was given weekly training sessions in juggling for six weeks and asked to practice 30 minutes every day. Both groups were scanned using diffusion MRI before and after the six-week period.

Juggler, postgraduate student at FMRIB, and first author on the paper, Jan Scholz, said: ‘We challenged half of the volunteers to learn to do something entirely new. After six weeks of juggling training, we saw changes in the white matter of this group compared to the others who had received no training. The changes were in regions of the brain which are involved in reaching and grasping in the periphery of vision, so that seems to make a lot of sense.’

After the training, there was a great variation in the ability of the volunteers to juggle. All could juggle three balls for at least two cascades, but some could juggle five balls and perform other tricks. All showed changes in white matter, however, suggesting this was down to the time spent training and practising rather than the level of skill attained.

‘This exciting new result raises a lot of questions,’ says Dr Johansen-Berg, ‘MRI is an indirect way to measure brain structure and so we cannot be sure exactly what is changing when these people learn. Future work should test whether these results reflect changes in the shape or number of nerve fibres, or growth of the insulating myelin sheath surrounding the fibres.’

Dr Johansen-Berg says: ‘Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone should go out and start juggling to improve their brains. We chose juggling purely as a complex new skill for people to learn. But there is a ‘use it or lose it’ school of thought, in which any way of keeping the brain working is a good thing, such as going for a walk or doing a crossword.’

‘There are potential clinical applications of this work, although they are a long way off,’ adds Dr Johansen-Berg. ‘Knowing that pathways in the brain can be enhanced may be significant in the long run in coming up with new treatments for neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, where these pathways become degraded.’

Provided by Oxford University

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3 / 5 (1) Oct 11, 2009
any way of keeping the brain working is a good thing, such as going for a walk or doing a crossword.

Please help. How does going for a walk keep the brain working being comparable to doing a crossword?
A zen walk?
5 / 5 (1) Oct 12, 2009
i guess it depends where your walking? or maybe they think if you stop walking you'll forget how! but--- the science does work i do it differently
start writing with your "off" hand then try it in cursive get good at it then try it with both hands at the same time your brain will immediately convince you to put the "off" pen down resist and persist after you get that one go back to one hand and write in "mirror" image then try it cursive and repeat the dual hand experiment then for desert try to write one above the other one backwards and one normal so when folded in half they superimpose i have done this with a lot of people and it is amazing i did notice with girls around 3 or 4 writing numbers with their off hand they naturally flipped them mirror and did not notice interesting have fun
Oct 12, 2009
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5 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2009
For old people,& otherwise for diseases like Alzheimer's etc, Doctors suggest to do anything to keep our brain active.
Most old people I believe, spend time just sitting all day. Compare this with a very simple activity like walking.

Imagine the amount of exercise you are giving to your brain.
Your brain needs to coordinate, see, smell, hear, feel and then match these feeling and sights with your master database.
Think about it, when you see someone or something like a car on the road, your brain has to match the image with the hundreds of thousands of people you know and millions of objects you have seen in your entire lifetime to tell which is which. All your senses are working simultaneously probably thousands of times a second.

Now, think about sitting in the same room with the same stuff and with the same people day after day after day...
It may seem simple as walking comes to us naturally, but when you think about it, our brain may be in hyperdrive!
not rated yet Oct 18, 2009
Perhaps "walking and chewing bubble gum" might be a new skill that would enhance white matter.

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