Practice Does Make Perfect, Functional MRI Study of Professional Ballet Dancers’ Brains Shows

“Practice makes perfect” may be a cliché but a new brain study out of York University in Toronto, Canada, affirms this age-old theory. In this study, Faculty of Health researchers examined fMRI brain scans of professional ballet dancers to measure the long-term effects of learning. “We wanted to study how the brain gets activated with long-term rehearsal of complex dance motor sequences,” says Professor Joseph DeSouza, who studies and supports people with Parkinson's disease. "The study outcome will help with understanding motor learning and developing effective treatments to rehabilitate the damaged or diseased brain." For the study, eleven dancers (19-50 years of age) from the National Ballet of Canada were asked to visualize dance movements to music, while undergoing fMRI scanning. The scans measured Blood-Oxygen-Level-Dependent (BOLD) contrasts at four time points over 34 weeks, when the subjects were learning a new dance. “Our aim was to find out the long-term impact of the cortical changes that occur as one goes from learning a motor sequence to becoming an expert at it,” says co-author Rachel Bar, who was a ballet dancer herself. “Our results also suggest that understanding the neural underpinnings of complex motor tasks such as learning a new dance can be an effective model to study motor learning in the real world.” The results showed that initial learning and performance at seven weeks led to increase in activation in cortical regions during visualization of the dance being learned when compared to the first week. However, at 34 weeks, the cortical regions showed reduced activation in comparison to week seven.
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