Black belts show structural differences in specific parts of their brains (in white)
In a close-range punching contest described in Cerebral Cortex, experts consistently out-hit novices.
Scientists peered deep into the brains of the experts to reveal alterations in regions controlling movement.
These changes were linked with better coordination and speed of punch, a team from Imperial College London and University College London concluded.
Ed Roberts from Imperial College London, who led the study, said: “The karate black belts were able to repeatedly coordinate their punching action with a level of coordination that novices can’t produce. We think that ability might be related to fine tuning of neural connections in the cerebellum.”
To determine the speed of the punch, the researchers filmed and timed the movement of the infrared sensors attached to shoulders, elbows, wrists and hips of the people.
The study of brain structure and function has been accelerated by the development of new medical imaging techniques, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
The current study used a special MRI technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging. This is useful in the investigation of a variety of brain disorders such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, brain abscesses and brain tumors.
The brain contains two main types of tissue – grey and white matter. The regions controlling and coordinating movement are known as the cerebellum and the primary motor cortex and are composed of both. However, the study showed that changes in the structure of the white matter were associated with improved coordination.
Changes in white matter structure have been observed in other individuals engaged in repetitive physical activity – pianists for example – and can also be induced simply by thought.
In a study published in the journal PNAS, the authors showed that regular meditation resulted in white matter changes in regions of the brain associated with emotion.
Commenting on his findings, Dr Roberts said: “Most research on how the brain controls movement has been based on examining how diseases can impair motor skills.
“We took a different approach, by looking at what enables experts to perform better than novices in tests of physical skill.”
Also, by looking at healthy subjects, it is hoped that scientists will gain a better understanding of how movement is controlled.
One of the main diseases affecting white matter is multiple sclerosis (MS). This is a chronic degenerative disease that affects millions of people around the world. But the cause of MS remains unknown.
Powerful punch is all in the brain, study finds
A powerful punch is not the result of strong muscles, but the features that make up the brain, scientists have found.
Scientists, who compared karate black belts trained to punch with physically fit members of the public, found the brain’s white matter – which acts as the connections between brain regions – correlated directly with punching ability.
They concluded the power of a punch is not down to the strength of muscles but the timing, with synchronised movement between the wrist and shoulders essential.
While it is not yet certain whether differences in white matter were the cause or effect of successful punching, scientists suspect the brains of those who can punch changed and developed as a result of training.
The study, which has now been published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, used 12 karate black belts with an average of 13.8 years experience, who were fitted with infrared markers on their arms and torso.
Their results were then compared with the efforts of 12 control subjects of similar age, who exercised regularly but were not trained in martial arts.
Over a short range distance of 5cm, those who had black belts in karate were found to punch harder.
Brain scans on each group revealed the white matter in cells, mainly made up of bundles of fibre that carry signals, were different in structure.
The scans used in this study, known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), detected structural differences in the white matter of the cerebellum and the primary motor cortex, known to be involved in controlling movement.
The difference correlated not only with the synchronicity between wrist and shoulder movements when punching, but also the age at which karate experts began training and their total experience of the discipline.
These findings suggest that the structural differences in the brain are related to the black belts’ punching ability.
Dr Ed Roberts, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, who led the study, said: “The karate black belts were able to repeatedly coordinate their punching action with a level of coordination that novices can’t produce.
“We think that ability might be related to fine tuning of neural connections in the cerebellum, allowing them to synchronise their arm and trunk movements very accurately.
“There are several factors that can affect the DTI signal, so we can’t say exactly what features of the white matter these differences correspond to. Further studies using more advanced techniques will give us a clearer picture.”
The research was carried out by Imperial College London and University College London.