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Do Sports Make You Smarter? Study Finds Athletes' Brains Have More Gray Matter

Not running out of gray matter
Not running out of gray matter
Claudia Liebram

BOCHUM - Intensive sports make our muscles grow – nothing new there. But now clinical neurophysiologists from Germany’s Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB) have shown that sports can change our brain too.

For their research, 26 high-performance athletes (half of them practitioners of judo and karate, the other half marathon runners and triathletes), and 12 non-athletes, had their brains imaged by MRI scanners.

The images revealed that in the part of the brain called the supplementary motor area (SMA), the athletes had significantly more gray matter.

"The RUB researchers found that the endurance athletes had more gray matter in both the SMA and the hippocampus than the non-athletes," said project head Professor Tobias Schmidt-Wilcke, head of Bochum’s Research Department of Neuroscience.

Gray matter is mainly comprised of neurons, while white matter is made up mostly of glial cells and myelinated axons that send signals within the cerebrum and between it and other parts of the brain. The researchers must now tackle the issue of whether the changes to the athletes’ brains come about because of cell growth or are due to stronger blood flow in the area.

Brain researchers have long abandoned a once well-established theory that the structure of an adult brain doesn’t change. Says Schmidt-Wilcke: "Now we know that learning and training processes can lead to change."

Schmidt-Wilcke has already scheduled some follow-up research – he and his team intend to find out if the additional gray matter in the athletes’ brains has positive effects in other areas of life, for example at work: has their memory improved, can they crunch information and make decisions faster?

There’s some good news for those who have no intention of taking up endurance sports – according to Schmidt-Wilcke, walking increases hippocampus volume and also benefits long-term memory.

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