A recent article in the journal "Nature Neuroscience" tells of an exciting new development in brain development that could eventually lead to treatments for degenerative diseases like Multiple sclerosis.
It has been shown that juggling increases white matter in an area of the brain which to respond to learning the skill. Other mental tasks have been shown in the past to increase functioning of the brain as a whole but this white matter mass increase is being touted as the first evidence that it too can be physically affected by means of learning specific challenging physical tasks.
A group of test subjectshad magnetic imaging brain scans performed at the beginning and again at the end of the experiment, and were trained to juggle three balls. They had to practice for 30-minutes daily and over a 6-week period before having their second brain scan. There was a 5% increase in white matter in a region of the brain called the intraparietal sulcus, the area that is responsible for reaching/grasping manipulative tasks that also involves peripheral vision.
These findings have researchers excited as this suggests that other similar treatments could lead to cures or improvements for persons afflicted with degenerative diseases involving white matter degeneration. In Multiple Sclerosis, the white matter is degraded and does not allow electrical signals to transmit effectively to the spinal cord making sufferers endure physical disabilities.
While this 5% increase of white matter in the region associated with peripheral dexterity and task performance is encouraging, not all the jugglers tested developed their juggling skills with equal proficiency. This is revealing in itself. It seems to be as much their attempt to learn this complicated and unfamiliar physical task and not just the prowess of execution that is the key. The adageof use it or lose it comes to mind except this seems to build new material, not just maintain existing material.
Exercising a muscle can increase the muscle size, but learning a new skill has never before been shown to increase brain mass. Sufferers of degenerative diseases of the brain might someday soon benefit from these findings as well as congenital defects although it has not been yet shown that generating new material necessarily replaces degraded brain material. It seems suggestive that it might.
Juggling is Good for the Brain?
Image via Wikipedia
Basically, learning to juggle will most probably not prevent nor stave-off the onset of Multiple Sclerosis of other degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's Disease, but it does demonstrate that the cause of MS (decreased or faulty electrical transmission between the brain and spinal cord) might be manipulated by other means (via chemical, other artificial stimulation such as increased electrical impulses, etc.) to improve the quality of life for those afflicted, reduce the symptoms or hopefully with time and more discoveries, prevent the disease in the first place.