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The Brains Within the Bodies: A Look at How Neurological Differences Set Olympic Gymnasts Apart

August 17, 2016

Abstract Human Brain

For almost two weeks now, the world has been mesmerized by the seemingly superhuman abilities exhibited by Olympic athletes in Rio. As we blogged about earlier this year, researchers have been very interested in studying the negative effects of intense exercise and sports on the human body, such as the consequences of repetitive head trauma. World Cup soccer champion Brandi Chastain has even agreed to posthumously donate her brain to research so that she can help scientists (and hopefully other athletes) learn about and deal with traumatic brain injuries as a result of the sport.

But scientists have also looked at the flipside of this equation – i.e. biological differences in the human body that set world-class athletes apart, allowing them to achieve physically what the rest of us ‘Average Joes’ cannot. A certain variation of the muscle-producing ACTN3 gene, for example, has been found present in elite athletes, with some scientists dubbing it the ‘gene for speed’.

Last week, we came across a piece in the Huffington Post examining the “Incredible Brain of Simone Biles.” A Team USA gymnast who took home four gold medals at the 2016 Rio games, Biles has been blowing viewers away with her extreme athletic prowess and gravity defying routines. It turns out, her brain may be wired differently than the rest of ours.

While there is no plan at present to study Simone Biles in particular, the article took a look at anatomical differences that likely set her apart from average athletes. According to experts, world-class gymnasts tend to have “more plasticity” in their brains, enabling them to perform at a higher level. Let’s take a look at what this means.

The article cites a study out of China that found that first-rate gymnasts have stronger nerve connections between the cortex and the spinal cord, as well as increased connectivity in brain areas responsible for sensory and motor functions. The study also found that champion gymnasts’ brains were exceedingly efficient in several regions corresponding to attention functions. These characteristics together have been coined “brain plasticity” – or, the brain’s ability to learn by rearranging its own wiring or strengthening existing connections through practice. Elite gymnasts’ brains are overall more “plastic” than others.

It is unclear whether these differences are adaptations from long-term training, innate predispositions, or both, but the pattern is there. Of course, this is not the only contributing factor to what makes an outstanding gymnast – clearly environment, psychology, and other important variables play a significant role. But the thought of learning more, at the neurological level, about what biologically sets these extraordinarily coordinated and talented athletes apart is fascinating.

The article postulates that new technology may be needed to try to “see the brain in action” to further uncover its secrets. Perhaps one day we will witness Olympic gymnasts lining up as “philanthropic patients” to help scientists monitor their brain activity while performing. If so, we might soon better understand how a 3-pound organ can make a small few of us seemingly fly.