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PLoS One. 2014 May 6;9(5):e96871. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0096871. eCollection 2014.

Functional and structural correlates of motor speed in the cerebellar anterior lobe.

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Institute of Training Science and General Kinesiology, University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany.
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany.


In athletics, motor performance is determined by different abilities such as technique, endurance, strength and speed. Based on animal studies, motor speed is thought to be encoded in the basal ganglia, sensorimotor cortex and the cerebellum. The question arises whether there is a unique structural feature in the human brain, which allows "power athletes" to perform a simple foot movement significantly faster than "endurance athletes". We acquired structural and functional brain imaging data from 32 track-and-field athletes. The study comprised of 16 "power athletes" requiring high speed foot movements (sprinters, jumpers, throwers) and 16 endurance athletes (distance runners) which in contrast do not require as high speed foot movements. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to identify speed specific regions of interest in the brain during fast and slow foot movements. Anatomical MRI scans were performed to assess structural grey matter volume differences between athletes groups (voxel based morphometry). We tested maximum movement velocity of plantarflexion (PF-Vmax) and acquired electromyographical activity of the lateral and medial gastrocnemius muscle. Behaviourally, a significant difference between the two groups of athletes was noted in PF-Vmax and fMRI indicates that fast plantarflexions are accompanied by increased activity in the cerebellar anterior lobe. The same region indicates increased grey matter volume for the power athletes compared to the endurance counterparts. Our results suggest that speed-specific neuro-functional and -structural differences exist between power and endurance athletes in the peripheral and central nervous system.

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