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HEALTH > A single structure in brain may give physical strength

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Studies indicate that the brain’s insular cortex may help an athletic sprinter drive their body forward more efficiently than their competitors. REUTERS photo

Studies indicate that the brain’s insular cortex may help an athletic sprinter drive their body forward more efficiently than their competitors. REUTERS photo

According to an article published in Scientific American, an extraordinary insula helps elite athletes better anticipate their body’s upcoming feelings, improving their physical reactions.

Recent studies indicate that the brain’s insular cortex may help a sprinter drive his body forward just a little more efficiently than his competitors. This region may prepare a boxer to better fend off a punch his opponent is beginning to throw, as well as assist a diver as she calculates her spinning body’s position so she hits the water with barely a splash. The insula, as it is commonly called, may help a marksman retain a sharp focus on the bull’s-eye as his finger pulls back on the trigger, or help a basketball player at the free-throw line block out the distracting screams and arm-waving of fans seated behind the backboard, said the article.

The insula does all this by anticipating an athlete’s future feelings, according to a new theory. Researchers at the OptiBrain Center, a consortium based at the University of California, San Diego, and the Naval Health Research Center, suggest that an athlete possesses a hyper-attuned insula that can generate strikingly accurate predictions of how the body will feel in the next moment. That model of the body’s future condition instructs other brain areas to initiate actions that are more tailored to coming demands than those of also-rans and couch potatoes. According to Scientific American, This heightened awareness could allow Olympians to activate their muscles more resourcefully to swim faster, run further and leap higher than mere mortals. In experiments published in 2012, brain scans of elite athletes appeared to differ most dramatically from ordinary subjects in the functioning of their insulas. Emerging evidence now also suggests that this brain area can be trained using a meditation technique called mindfulness, which is good news for Olympians and weekend warriors alike.

Peak performance

Stripped of the cheering fans, the play-by-play commentary and all the trappings of wealth and fame, professional sports are reduced to a simple concept: The athletes who enthrall us are experts at meeting specific physical goals. They execute corporeal feats smoothly, without wasting a single drop of sweat. Such performance is a full-brain phenomenon. The motor cortex and memory systems, for example, encode years of practice. Nerve fibers become ensconced in extra layers of a protective sheath that speeds up communication between neurons, producing lightning-fast reflexes.

Understanding the brain at its athletic best is the goal of psychiatrist Martin Paulus at the OptiBrain Center. They propose that the insula may serve as the critical hub that merges high-level cognition with a measure of the state, to insure proper functioning of the muscles that throw javelins and land twirling dismounts from the high bar.

July/26/2012

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