15 minutes of exercise creates optimal brain state for mastering new motor skills

July 10, 2018 by Katherine Gombay, McGill University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

If you want to learn to walk a tightrope, it's a good idea to go for a short run after each practice session. That's because a recent study in NeuroImage demonstrates that exercise performed immediately after practicing a new motor skill improves its long-term retention. More specifically, the research shows, for the first time, that as little as a single fifteen-minute bout of cardiovascular exercise increases brain connectivity and efficiency. It's a discovery that could, in principle, accelerate recovery of motor skills in patients who have suffered a stroke or who face mobility problems following an injury.

In his earlier work, Marc Roig, the senior author on the study, had already demonstrated that helps consolidate muscle or motor memory. What he and the McGill-based research team sought to discover this time was why exactly this was the case. What was going on in the brain, as the mind and the muscles interacted? What was it that helped the body retain motor skills?

A muscular video game

To find out, the research team asked study participants to perform two different tasks. The first, known as a "pinch task" is a bit like a muscular video game. It consists of gripping an object akin to a gamers' joystick (and known as a dynamometer) and using varying degrees of force to move a cursor up and down to connect red rectangles on a computer screen as quickly as possible. The task was chosen because it involved participants in motor learning as they sought to modulate the force with which they gripped the dynamometer to move the cursor around the screen. This was then followed by fifteen minutes of exercise or rest.

Participants were then asked to repeat an abridged version of this task, known as a handgrip task, at intervals of 30, 60, 90 minutes, after exercise or rest, while the researchers assessed their level of brain activity. This task involved participants in simply repeatedly gripping the dynamometer, for a few seconds, with a similar degree of force to that which was used to reach some of the target rectangles in the "pinch task". The final step in the study involved participants in both groups repeating the "pinch task" eight and then twenty-four hours after initially performing it, allowing the researchers to capture and compare brain activity and connectivity as the motor memories were consolidated.

More efficient brain activity

The researchers discovered that those who had exercised were consistently able to repeat the "pinch task" connecting different areas of the brain more efficiently and with less brain activity than those who hadn't exercised. More importantly, the reduction of brain activity in the exercise group was correlated with a better retention of the motor skill twenty-four hours after motor practice. This suggests that even a short bout of intense exercise can create an optimal brain state during the consolidation of motor memory which improves the retention of .

When they looked more specifically at what was going on, the researchers discovered that, after exercise, there was less , most likely because the neural connections both between and within the brain hemispheres had become more efficient.

"Because the neural activation in the brains of those who had exercised was much lower," explains Fabien Dal Maso, the first author on the paper, "the neural resources could then be put to other tasks. Exercise may help free up part of your to do other things."

The importance of sleep

What the researchers found especially intriguing was that when they tested participants at the 8 hour mark, there was little difference between groups in skill retention. In fact both groups were less able to retain the skills they had newly acquired, than they were at the twenty-four mark when the difference between the two groups was once more apparent.

"What this suggests to us, and this is where we are going next with our research, is that sleep can interact with exercise to optimize the consolidation of motor memories," says Marc Roig, the senior author on the paper. "It is very exciting to be working in this area right now because there is still so much to be learnt and the research opens doors to health interventions that can potentially make a big difference to people's lives."

Explore further: Exercise to change the brain

More information: Fabien Dal Maso et al. Acute cardiovascular exercise promotes functional changes in cortico-motor networks during the early stages of motor memory consolidation, NeuroImage (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.03.029

Related Stories

Exercise to change the brain

April 26, 2018
For someone with Parkinson's disease (PD), the simple desire to grasp a glass of water can become an insurmountable task, made impossible by the tremors in their hand or arm. Finding strategies to improve these movement impairments ...

Want to give your memory a boost?

May 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Whether you're studying for an important exam or learning a new language, there's more proof that nonstop cramming sessions may not translate into the long-term memory retention you want.

Repetitive body movements may form long-lasting motor memory

March 10, 2016
Researchers in Japan have found that repetitive movements in slow-learning stages can alter an area of the brain responsible for movement, and help individuals retain these motor skills.

When there's an audience, people's performance improves

April 20, 2018
Often, people think performing in front of others will make them mess up, but a new study led by a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist found the opposite: being watched makes people do better.

Short-term exercise equals big-time brain boost

December 21, 2017
A 10-minute, one-time burst of exercise can measurably boost your brain power, at least temporarily, researchers at Western University in London, Canada, have found.

Noninvasive brain imaging shows readiness of trainees to perform operations

October 24, 2017
While simulation platforms have been used to train surgeons before they enter an actual operating room (OR), few studies have evaluated how well trainees transfer those skills from the simulator to the OR. Now, a study that ...

Recommended for you

A peek into the interplay between sleep and wakefulness

July 20, 2018
Sleep is an autonomic process and is not always under our direct, voluntary control. Awake or asleep, we are basically under the regulation of two biological processes: sleep homeostasis, commonly known as 'sleep pressure', ...

Paralyzed mice with spinal cord injury made to walk again

July 19, 2018
Most people with spinal cord injury are paralyzed from the injury site down, even when the cord isn't completely severed. Why don't the spared portions of the spinal cord keep working? Researchers at Boston Children's Hospital ...

Neural inflammation plays critical role in stress-induced depression

July 19, 2018
A group of Japanese researchers has discovered that neural inflammation caused by the innate immune system plays an unexpectedly important role in stress-induced depression. This insight could potentially lead to the development ...

Scientists uncover the role of a protein in production and survival of myelin-forming cells

July 19, 2018
The nervous system is a complex organ that relies on a variety of biological players to ensure daily function of the human body. Myelin—a membrane produced by specialized glial cells—plays a critical role in protecting ...

Understanding the neuroscience of binge drinking

July 19, 2018
A new study from researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center found that binge drinking impairs working memory in the adolescent brain. The study, in mice, explains why teenagers who binge drink are 15 times more ...

Neurons can carry more than one signal at a time

July 18, 2018
Back in the early days of telecommunications, engineers devised a clever way to send multiple telephone calls through a single wire at the same time. Called time-division multiplexing, this technique rapidly switches between ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.