Runners may have superior brain connectivity, study finds


If your New Year’s resolution is to become more active, you might want to consider running as your go-to activity. New research by the University of Arizona reveals that MRI scans of endurance runners’ brains show greater functional connectivity when compared with the brains of less active individuals.
Previous research has shown that training for a long time in activities that require accurate fine motor control – such as learning to play a musical instrument – alter the structure of brain areas that are connected with motor function.
These fine motor activities also appear to cause changes in cortical areas that are involved in sensory, spatial, and attentional processes.
Additionally, people who are skilled in activities that require high levels of hand-eye coordination – such as golf, gymnastics, and racquet sports – also experience altered brain structure and function.
The University of Arizona (UA) researchers note that up until now, there have been few studies that have explored the effects that repetitive athletic activities requiring little motor control precision – including long-distance running – can have on the brain.
To further investigate, UA running expert David Raichlen, an associate professor of anthropology, co-designed a study with UA psychology professor Gene Alexander – who studies brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease as a member of the UA’s Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute.
“These activities that people consider repetitive actually involve many complex cognitive functions – like planning and decision-making – that may have effects on the brain,” says Raichlen.
Raichlen, Alexander, and collaborators aimed to examine the changes in the brain associated with endurance running – a sport that involves repetitive rather than complex fine motor skills. The results of the research were published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
The team conducted the study by comparing the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of adult male cross country runners, alongside adult males who have not engaged in regular physical activity for at least a year. The participants were aged between 18-25 years and had similar body mass index and education levels. The MRI scans captured the processes that occur in the brains of participants while they were awake and not engaging in any specific tasks.
Overall, the results showed that compared with the more sedentary individuals, the runners displayed greater connections between different regions in several areas of the brain.

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