The acquisition of special skills can induce plastic changes in the human hippocampus, a finding demonstrated in expert navigators (Maguire et al. (2000) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 97:4,398-403). Conversely, patients with acquired chronic bilateral vestibular loss develop atrophy of the hippocampus, which is associated with impaired spatial memory (Brandt et al. (2005) Brain 128:2,732-741). This suggests that spatial memory relies on vestibular input. In this study 21 professional dancers and slackliners were examined to assess whether balance training with extensive vestibulo-visual stimulation is associated with altered hippocampal formation volumes or spatial memory. Gray matter voxel-based morphometry showed smaller volumes in the anterior hippocampal formation and in parts of the parieto-insular vestibular cortex of the trained subjects but larger volumes in the posterior hippocampal formation and the lingual and fusiform gyri bilaterally. The local volumes in the right anterior hippocampal formation correlated negatively and those in the right posterior hippocampal formation positively with the amount of time spent training ballet/ice dancing or slacklining at the time of the study. There were no differences in general memory or in spatial memory as assessed by the virtual Morris water task. Trained subjects performed significantly better on a hippocampal formation-dependent task of nonspatial memory (transverse patterning). The smaller anterior hippocampal formation volumes of the trained subjects may be the result of a long-term suppression of destabilizing vestibular input. This is supported by the associated volume loss in the parieto-insular vestibular cortex. The larger volumes in the posterior hippocampal formation of the trained subjects might result from their increased utilization of visual cues for balance. This is supported by the concomitant larger volumes in visual areas like the lingual and fusiform gyri. Our findings indicate that there is a spatial separation of vestibular and visual processes in the human hippocampus.
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