Motor learning in a complex balance task and associated neuroplasticity: a comparison between endurance athletes and nonathletes

J Neurophysiol. 2017 Sep 1;118(3):1849-1860. doi: 10.1152/jn.00419.2017. Epub 2017 Jun 28.


Studies suggested that motor expertise is associated with functional and structural brain alterations, which positively affect sensorimotor performance and learning capabilities. The purpose of the present study was to unravel differences in motor skill learning and associated functional neuroplasticity between endurance athletes (EA) and nonathletes (NA). For this purpose, participants had to perform a multimodal balance task (MBT) training on 2 sessions, which were separated by 1 wk. Before and after MBT training, a static balance task (SBT) had to be performed. MBT-induced functional neuroplasticity and neuromuscular alterations were assessed by means of functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and electromyography (EMG) during SBT performance. We hypothesized that EA would showed superior initial SBT performance and stronger MBT-induced improvements in SBT learning rates compared with NA. On a cortical level, we hypothesized that MBT training would lead to differential learning-dependent functional changes in motor-related brain regions [such as primary motor cortex (M1)] during SBT performance. In fact, EA showed superior initial SBT performance, whereas learning rates did not differ between groups. On a cortical level, fNIRS recordings (time × group interaction) revealed a stronger MBT-induced decrease in left M1 and inferior parietal lobe (IPL) for deoxygenated hemoglobin in EA. Even more interesting, learning rates were correlated with fNIRS changes in right M1/IPL. On the basis of these findings, we provide novel evidence for superior MBT training-induced functional neuroplasticity in highly trained athletes. Future studies should investigate these effects in different sports disciplines to strengthen previous work on experience-dependent neuroplasticity.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Motor expertise is associated with functional/structural brain plasticity. How such neuroplastic reorganization translates into altered motor learning processes remains elusive. We investigated endurance athletes (EA) and nonathletes (NA) in a multimodal balance task (MBT). EA showed superior static balance performance (SBT), whereas MBT-induced SBT improvements did not differ between groups. Functional near-infrared spectroscopy recordings revealed a differential MBT training-induced decrease of deoxygenated hemoglobin in left primary motor cortex and inferior parietal lobe between groups.

Keywords: balance; endurance athletes; functional near infrared spectroscopy; motor learning; neuroplasticity.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Athletes
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Muscle Contraction
  • Muscle, Skeletal / innervation
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Neuronal Plasticity*
  • Physical Conditioning, Human / physiology*
  • Physical Endurance
  • Postural Balance*