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Brain Changes In Ballet Dancers Show How 'Practice Makes Perfect'

Update Date: Feb 02, 2016 11:40 AM EST

With increasing practice, you get perfect.

That may not be news to you, but researchers from Canada's York University showed through a new brain study, that through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of professional ballet dancers, they could get an insight into the far-reaching effects on learning.

"We wanted to study how the brain gets activated with a long-term rehearsal of complex dance motor sequences," Joseph DeSouza, who participated in the research, said in a press release. "The study outcome will help with understanding motor learning and developing effective treatments to rehabilitate the damaged or diseased brain."

By studying 11 dancers between 19 and 50, the team asked them to visualize dance movements even as they played music. During the activity, researchers looked at the brains using fMRI scanning that probed the Blood-Oxygen-Level-Dependent (BOLD) contrasts at four points, through 34 weeks, while they learned a new dance.

"Our aim was to find out the long-term impact of the cortical changes that occur as one goes from learning a motor sequence to becoming an expert at it," said Rachel Bar, coauthor of the study. "Our results also suggest that understanding the neural underpinnings of complex motor tasks such as learning a new dance can be an effective model to study motor learning in the real world."

At the seven-week mark, the early learning and performance showed more activation in cortical regions while the visualization of the dance was compared to the activation in the first week. Yet, following 34 weeks, there was a reduction in activation compared to the seventh week.

"We found that in the learning process, our brain function makes an inverted 'U' learning pattern from a slow pace at the start, accelerating to a peak at the midpoint, before returning to the original pace, once we have mastered the task," DeSouza said. "An everyday example would be learning to drive a manual car, where you constantly have to think about shifting the gears until you master it and then do it instinctively."

The study was published in the Jan. 29,2016 issue of PLOS One.

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