"Neural Efficiency" of Athletes' Brain during Visuo-Spatial Task: An fMRI Study on Table Tennis Players

Front Behav Neurosci. 2017 Apr 26:11:72. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00072. eCollection 2017.


Long-term training leads experts to develop a focused and efficient organization of task-related neural networks. "Neural efficiency" hypothesis posits that neural activity is reduced in experts. Here we tested the following working hypotheses: compared to non-athletes, athletes showed lower cortical activation in task-sensitive brain areas during the processing of sports related and sports unrelated visuo-spatial tasks. To address this issue, cortical activation was examined with fMRI in 14 table tennis athletes and 14 non-athletes while performing the visuo-spatial tasks. Behavioral results showed that athletes reacted faster than non-athletes during both types of the tasks, and no accuracy difference was found between athletes and non-athletes. fMRI data showed that, athletes exhibited less brain activation than non-athletes in the bilateral middle frontal gyrus, right middle orbitofrontal area, right supplementary motor area, right paracentral lobule, right precuneus, left supramarginal gyrus, right angular gyrus, left inferior temporal gyrus, left middle temporal gyrus, bilateral lingual gyrus and left cerebellum crus. No region was significantly more activated in the athletes than in the non-athletes. These findings possibly suggest that long-standing training prompt athletes develop a focused and efficient organization of task-related neural networks, as a possible index of "neural efficiency" in athletes engaged in visuo-spatial tasks, and this functional reorganization is possibly task-specific.

Keywords: brain activation; functional magnetic resonance imaging; neural efficiency; sports training; table tennis players; visuo-spatial information processing.