Bouldering is a special form of climbing without rope that requires coordinated whole-body movements. While physical performance parameters such as condition have been well studied, the knowledge on neural activity during climbing still remains sparse. Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) allows to measure brain activation while performing sportive actions due to its relative robustness against motion artefacts. In the current study, hemodynamic response alterations of 13 advanced climbers were investigated during boulder performance using fNIRS measurements. Simple and moderate climbing routes were compared regarding their level of cortical activation mainly in the sensorimotor area. Our results show that repetitively climbing a set of boulders activates almost all areas of the sensorimotor system including the bilateral premotor and supplementary motor cortex, bilateral primary motor cortex as well as the bilateral gyrus supramarginalis and somatosensory cortex. This result was found in both simple and moderate climbing routes with no effect of task complexity on the level of cortical activity. Correlation analysis (uncorrected for multiple comparisons) revealed a negative association between the level of expertise and the hemodynamic response in the supplementary-motor region, suggesting that gaining expertise in climbing is associated with a decrease in secondary motor areas, which is an indicator of motor automaticity. In summary, the present study provides first proof of concept that fNIRS is capable of assessing hemodynamic response alterations within the human motor system during the execution of complex whole-body climbing movements.
Keywords: Climbing; Near-infrared spectroscopy; Neuroplasticity; Unconstrained environments; Whole-body movement.
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