Learning a New Sport May Strengthen Your Brain

Unlike crossword puzzles, exercise strengthens a different part of the brain.

Taking Up a New Sport Could Boost Your Brain Power

According to a recent study, learning a new sport could strengthen your brain in different ways than the familiar brain training exercises such as crossword puzzles and word searches do. It is part of growing research on the impacts of motor learning on the brain.

We have all heard the ads for Luminosity – a brain training website touting the benefits of increasing memory and overall cognition. But very few of us associate motor activity with brain function. Past studies have already shown that regular exercise changes the brain by increasing cells in the parts of the brain responsible for memory and thinking.

But more recent research suggests that learning a new physical skill can have significant effects on brain strength. The 2014 study with mice found that when the mice were introduced to a complicated type of running wheel, in which the rungs were spaced in irregular patterns, such that the mice had to learn a new stutter-step type of running, their brains changed significantly.

Learning to use these new wheels led to increased myelination of neurons in the animals’ motor cortexes. Myelination is the process by which parts of a brain cell are insulated, so that the messages between neurons can proceed more quickly and smoothly. It was previously believed that myelination in the brain occurs almost exclusively during infancy and childhood and then slows or stops altogether.

However, the mice running on the new wheels showed notable increases in the myelination of the neurons in their motor cortex even though they were adults.
Other mice that ran on normal wheels for the same period of time showed no increase in myelination. Scientists concluded that learning the new physical skill had changed the adult mice brains, where practicing a mastered, familiar skill had not.

While it is still unknown if these changes would present themselves in humans, it does seem likely. According to study authors, motor skills are as cognitively challenging in their way as traditional brain training methods. However, by giving a new sport a try, you are not only improving your brain strength, you are also getting the added health benefits of exercise – something brain training on a computer or with a crossword puzzle just can’t provide.