Olympian minds: can we train our brain for success in sports & other fields? (UCL)

Uploaded by UCLTV on 31.07.2012

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>> It is estimated that about two billion people will be
watching the Olympic Games in London next week
and their motivation for it to have a remarkable number,
their motivation for doing that is no doubt partly the fun
of the games, watching the body in action,
the duty of the human body, the concentrated mind
that produces these actions.
But there is another reason I suspect and that is the sort
of sports arena that the Olympic Games are is an arena
for the exercise of will and determination and the pursuit
of perfection and excellence and these are attributes
which can be translated into all our activities, and hence,
there is an inspiration that we derive
from seeing people succeed when they have tried
because we can try in our own smaller fields to do the same.
So, we're going to talk tonight about the Olympic Games
but in a broad general context of plasticity.
And with me is Heidi Johansen-Berg,
a very distinguished--
a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Oxford
and also senior Welcome Trust Research fellow whose specialty
is studying the motor cortex.
So, Heidi, let's start of by looking at two sayings,
one comes from the greatest neurobiologist
of all time namely the Spanish Santiago Ramon y Cajal who said
that "the founts of growth and regeneration terminate
when the brain is developed.
Everything comes on abrupt end."
And the other one is a saying which is attributed
to the society of Jesus but it's not a correct attribution
because somebody else came up with it, is give us a child
to the age of seven and then you can have him for life
or give us a child at the age of seven and we'll give you the man
which Sigmund Freud later translated into the--
in his saying with "the child is the father of the man."
Now, neither of these statements is correct
but neither is wrong either.
So can we just begin by looking at the brains of athletes,
of very elite athletes is developing them--
do their brains develop the skills or are they born
with these skills in the way that mathematicians
and linguists and musicians are often born with these skills?
[Inaudible Remark]
>> Sure, so I think, and it is true that if you look
at the frames of athletes, they do seem to be rather special,
at least certain types of athletes.
So if you use brain scanning for example,
you can compare the brains of elite athletes
to those of regular people.
And there are specific brain regions which seem
to be enlarged or greater in athletes compared
to the non-athletes so that depends on the nature
of the skills, like for example, if you were to look
at an elite golfer, they tend to have more gray matter,
more cortex than the frontal areas of the brain,
the parietal areas of the brain
that are involved in special judgments.
And that makes some sense given the nature of the sport
that they're expert in.
But what's unclear from that is whether those specializations
were present from birth or whether that's the result
of the many hours of practice that they have put in.
I mean, I think it's generally accepted
that to become truly expert in any domain, whether it's sports
or music or other types of specialism
that that's essential really is that practice.
So, you know, if you put in 10,000 hours of practice
over 10 years, then that's what you need in order to attain
that level of extreme expertise that were characterized
in Olympic athletes for example.
>> But is there-- in the-- in areas of expertise,
for example in mathematics and in language and in vision
and in maternal love et cetera, there is a critical period.
So everything is specified genetically at birth,
but if the newborn is not exposed during this critical
period, then the capacity atrophies
and these critical periods vary
between different-- in different domains.
For example, I think that in case of vision,
the critical period is about three
to seven weeks immediately after birth.
If the human infant is not exposed to vision
at this period, then it is almost forever blighted
in one way or the other.
For maternal love, it hurdles fantastic experiment.
If the monkey is deprived
of its mother then it becomes very abnormal behavior.
And no amount of exposure to the mother
of the critical period restores its emotional stability.
Is there such a thing for sport?
>> Well, I'm not sure about sports 'cause if it may--
it does seem that there are critical periods
for certain types of learning as well
of which sport can be an example.
So, one classic example of that would be
in song birds for example.
So, if a mature song bird isn't exposed,
it doesn't hear the adult song before it reaches sexual
maturity, it would never-- it will never be able to learn
that song in adulthood.
So even though it doesn't itself produce the song
as an immature bird, it needs to have had that input during
that critical period in order to later to be able
to learn the output itself.
In the field of sports expertise,
I think it's an interesting one, that doesn't--
although many, many sports people started early
in the sport, I don't think
that those same critical periods exist.
There were some-- there are many examples of people, for example,
who train in a particular sport but then later
on change sport completely to a sport
that might require quite different cognitive skills
and would presumably require quite different brain mechanisms
and yet they are able to switch
and learn a new skill even relatively late in development.
>> Could you give us examples of what kind
of sport they switch from?
>> So if for example someone might switch from cycling
to rowing or from swimming to cycling.
So the very, very different motor skills
and visual motor skill is involved in those tasks
and maybe that gives us some clue
as to what's special about athletes.
Perhaps, it's less than much-- it's--
perhaps it's less the specific movement repertoire.
And maybe it's more psychological factors
like motivation to put in those hours of training or ability
to cope under the prefect-- the pressure of,
the high-pressure performance.
So, it might be some of those more generic psychological
characteristics, if you like, or personality traits
that could characterize a potential expert athlete
as opposed to the mental repertoire.
>> Yes, the equivalent experiment has not been done
in the motor system that had been done
in the individual system, the people born
with congenital cataract.
The operations of congenital cataract were actually perfected
in 1930s in Germany.
And when they operated on these children at the age of 9, 10,
11, the restoring vision to them,
restoring inputs did not help them at all.
They could not-- there's no equivalent experiment
in the motor system
of immobilizing people at birth, so.
>> No, I mean certainly, though, types of damage
to the motor system, whether that be peripheral damage
or central damaged motor system, that there--
it is the case that the younger brain has far greater capacity
to recover from that damage than that an older would.
>> Well, I think just in case anybody is in doubt there,
but redefine the critical period, it is a period during
which all the apparatuses needed
to undertake a function is there present and functioning.
But if it is not nourished then it atrophies.
And if it is done during that--
if not nourished during
that critical period then the capacity is never,
never regained at all.
So, in the case of vision, if you deprive somebody of vision
to natural causes
or artificially during these few weeks or months after birth,
then they are forever blind.
And if you deprive a child of contact
with the mother then they become forever abnormal.
Now, it is-- you can deprive and adopt of vision and be fine.
It's only during this critical period
that the brain is extremely sensitive.
And you were saying that in the motor system,
there is no such equivalent of critical period
that anybody has found.
>> No, not that I'm aware of.
It seems that's, you know, one retains the ability
to learn very novel movements even much later on,
in development and later on in life.
>> Okay. Let us talk a bit
about the plasticity of the motor system.
First of all, is it not true that there are certain parts
of the motor apparatus of the brain
which are much more plastic than others?
Is it-- is this true?
>> Well, there are certain parts of the motor system
that are particularly specialized for learning.
So the cerebellum would be a classical example.
So the cerebellum which sits at the back
of the brain here seems a bit--
it's been particularly well equipped for learning.
It has a very special type of circuitry
that lends itself very much to skill learning.
But many different areas
of the motor system have been shown to change.
So the motor cortex, classically,
is an area that's been the focus of many
of the classical experiments showing changes
that happen with learning.
So the motor cortex is characterized
by representational maps, and you can map out different bits,
different parts of the body traveling along this
motor strip.
So it provides you with a very nice framework
within which you can look at change.
You can literally look at expansion or contraction
in the size of those motor cortical maps.
>> But if you take the--
let us take the example of serious damage
to the motor cortex of both sides in the human,
there is a paralysis but it is not quite
as severe as that, is it?
I mean it's not as bad as damage to the cerebellum
which leads to ataxia.
>> No, so it seems that the motor cortex has--
the motor cortex and its projections to the spinal cord.
they are particularly required for the-- for fine movements.
So for example, hand movements and digit movements.
So, it's those more skilled movements that are lost
as a result of cortical damage whereas some
of the more in-built movements like walking for example
or balance seem to depend more on, if you like,
more primitive brain systems, these deeper brain structures.
>> So what is it-- what is it that is lost in the--
at the motor cor-- a unilateral one side of motor cortex damage?
>> So, depending on the precise location of the damage,
patients will often have impaired movements
on the opposite side of the body because one--
motor cortex projects to the muscles
on the opposite side of the body.
As I said, the most severe damage will often be
with these individuated finger movements.
So patients often more recover some degree
of movement after stroke.
But the very last thing to come back would be these fine finger
movements, picking up a paper clip, for example,
from a table would be extremely, extremely difficult.
So it's those skilled movements that's--
that are the hardest things to get back.
>> Yes. What about this damage to the spinal cord?
That's much more severe, isn't it?
>> Yes, for sure.
And again, so that would depend on the level
at which the damage occurred as to which movements were lost.
>> And the cerebellum?
>> And so the cerebellum seems particularly important
for things like balance and for acquisition of skill.
>> And recovery from that?
>> Is far less studied actually than the motor cortex.
So the vast majority of the work that's been done has focused
on motor cortex and that there's less work done
on patients with cerebellum.
>> Yes, yes.
So, is it known what determines the degree
to which different person can recover?
>> So, there are many factors that come into play.
So obviously, the size of--
the extent of the damage will be important, the location
of the damage, which pathway is left intact.
So an interesting thing about the motor system is
that it's characterized by-- there are very many--
there very many different motor areas and we talked
about the motor cortex but there's also, you know,
these five or six other areas of the cortex
which also send signals to the muscles.
So there's many different roots
by which a motor command could get
from the bran to the muscles.
So, depending on which of those roots are intact,
which of those roots are damaged,
that will dictate how much residual brain is left
that could potentially control the movements of the body.
>> I would like to explore something which is relative new
and that is-- see-- it used to be thought as the motor cortex
and the cerebellum, the spinal cord
and the subcortical motor nuclei.
These collectively form the--
our motor system with the cerebellum contributing balance
and motor cortex, a lot of movements.
But it turns out that the most part
of the brain is extremely large
and there are motor planning systems and motor--
affective motor planning systems as well, ones which are involved
in emotional motor planning.
I also understand that the emotional environment can
influence motor activity very significantly.
Would you like to tell us a bit more about that?
>> Yes, so there's certainly, there are loops, if you light,
between these deep brain structures and the cortex.
So there's certain areas,
a region in the brain called the striatum
which is very much involved in reward and motivation.
And that talks to the motor cortex and these circuits
and loops such that the learning
of a novel movement can be very heavily influenced
by reward characteristics, which is interesting in the context
of sports training or in the context of rehabilitation
that potentially by influence--
by changing how rewarding a particular training regime is
that have quite significant effects on its outcome.
So if you can make a training environment much more rewarding
to the participant, then you start to recruit these circuits
between the cortex and the striatum which might really push
that reward based to--
>> But I wonder how much in a situation
like the Olympic Games, the emotive effect
of competition perhaps of hatred and perhaps of the will
to win actually contribute towards mobilizing the motor
system through the emotional motor system.
Is this-- has been studied?
>> I don't know.
I'm not aware of that having been looked at systematically.
I'm sure that the, you know, the sports psychologist, I'm sure,
have looked very extensively
into how performance varies between, you know,
on the day of the competition versus in training and,
you know, and classically, we all know--
we've all seen England lose penalties endlessly.
So, this is just something players who will, you know,
100 percent success of scoring that penalty
in the training ground will nevertheless choke when it comes
to doing it in the European championship semi-finals.
So, there's clearly very different things that work here
and while some people can rise to the challenge, others can't
and that can't just be about genetics that must partly be
to do with the training.
So, you know, what's different about the German training system
versus the English training system?
>> And has this been studied in terms of what?
>> I'm not aware of it, I would think that there's a--
>> I mean the East German--
many years ago before Germany was reunited,
the East German government of course spent a lot of money
as did the Russian government spent a lot of money
on training to-- but they also used hormones and stuff
like that to build up athletes who could get
as many gold medals as possible.
Well, let's just talk about the effects of damage a bit more.
I gathered that if you have unilateral damage to one side,
how common are these damages
to motor cortex actually in the population?
>> So, while stroke-- I can't think at the top
of my head what the instance would be
but it rarely directly affects the motor cortex.
What tends to happen is that you would have a stroke
that would affect some of the outputs of the motor cortex.
So actually, strokes
that directly impact the motor cortex are pretty rare
but often patients would have strokes in the white matter.
That's the way they use to describe the connecting pathways
of the brain and they would basically interrupt
that output pathway from the brain and to the muscles.
>> But do this-- so during the period of recovery,
do you get the regeneration of cells or an importation
of new cells, what happens?
What are the sequences, what is the sequence of events?
>> So, well, the question of this regeneration
of cells is a very interesting one which comes back
to how you began the discussion,
this idea that there are all dogmas which are beginning
to get to some extent overwritten in line oftentimes.
So, you know, for many, many years, it was thought
that the adult brain was unable to generate new neurons.
And that's relevant both in the context of the discussion
of damage that we're having now but also more generally
to learning and memory and change over time.
It's becoming clear that actually there is capacity
for the adult brain to generate new neurons but it's not nearly
as ubiquitous as that is during development and then
to some extent, localized in specific regions of the brain.
But in terms of what happens following a stroke,
it seems that what-- rather than growth of new neurons,
it seems that the neurons that are left intact might change
in some way, new connections might develop.
So I think a far more common type of change is
that the surviving cells would change their connections
with other cells.
>> But the new connections established are not always
to advantage, are they?
I mean, I gathered
that sometimes the abnormal connections are formed
and sometimes when you've got unilateral damage to the cortex,
then there is an imbalance between the two motor cortexes
so that whatever regenerates here is opposed
by what's functioning normally
and it leads the person in a worse condition.
>> Yeah, that can happen.
So, normally, the motor-- there are--
we have the motor cortex in both sides of the brain
and predominantly, they tend to inhibit one another.
And in a healthy person, that works out quite well
and it allows you to perform unilateral movements
in the two motor cortexes that inhibit each other.
If you take out-- if you impair one of those motor cortexes
through stroke for example, then the intact,
surviving motor cortex might disproportionately inhibit the
stroke-affected hemisphere.
So you get this tick of the balance.
So, well, in a normal brain,
these two things are imbalanced with one another.
You reduce the output of one side of the brain
and the healthy side of the brain increases the activity
that has the effect to further inhibiting the stroke side
of the brain.
And as you say, you tip things completely out of kilter.
And if you reinforce that by becoming more and more reliant
on the healthy side of the brain,
that can become something of a vicious cycle.
So-- but it's complicated.
It's-- it can be that if there was a patient
in whom there really is no residual output
from the stroke affected-hemisphere,
all they have to rely on is that healthy hemisphere
and therefore it's worth cultivating that.
Whereas, in a patient in whom there is some scope
for them returning to more ba--
a more normal pattern of activity, then for sure,
that's the best thing to try to achieve.
>> Yes, let's talk a bit about the Paralympics
and what you imagine that happens in those situations,
how much the organization takes place?
>> Well, it seems that this phenomenal scope
for reorganization if somebody for example has the loss
of a particular sense, so if-- there's interesting evidence
to show you that in people who are blind, for example,
that the visual cortex at the back
of the brain starts responding
to different types of sensory input.
So it seems that although much of the circuitry
of the brain is pretty hardwired of the basic planning,
the wiring diagram is pre-specified from birth
that you can't override that to some extent
with either congenital or by early acquired loss
of a particular sensory input.
>> Does this happen-- if somebody is born blind,
the visual cortex is there and it's invaded by other senses,
what happens if they become blank?
>> It seems that the--
>> And they depend more on their sensory input?
>> Yeah, so it' seems that the people who become blind later
in life can develop very high levels of expertise with other--
with different types of nonvisual sensory input.
But that is less capacity for the--
for that dramatic rewiring that we see
in the early blind people.
So there's less capacity for the visual cortex to stop responding
to a completely different sense.
>> So, do I take it that if you were to look at the brains
of the elite in the Paralympic Games, you're going
to find significant differences from those
of people not damaged?
>> It would be interesting to see about this--
in some case whether some of those athletes have,
to some extent, capitalized on that possibility of sort
of super skill in another sense in the event of loss of one
of the standard sensory inputs.
So it will be interesting to see whether they--
I would have thought that their abilities
and other sensory domains would far outweigh people
with intact sensory input.
>> So given what you know about the motor cortex today,
do you think that development in medicine and biology are going
to help people in that situational a lot
or how do you see the future for those who are passionate
about sport but who are disabled in one way or the other?
>> I think that there's an increasing possibilities
for people to engage in sports in different ways and as--
things like technology developed,
some training strategies developed that, you know,
some of the abilities of the athletes
in the Paralympic Games are phenomenal.
And some of the athletes, I know, have had success even
in the standard competitions in the past.
So I think that there's a fantastic scope
for athletes on aside.
>> And are they being studied?
I mean the brain-- 'cause it's quite interesting subject
for medicine and biology, are they--
>> Absolutely, I've not seen studies specifically on athletes
in the Paralympic side.
I mean that there're many studies on people
with sensory loss of one type or another or people
with limb amputation or congenital limb absence
for example, and there are very interesting observations
on the effect that that would have on the representations
on the motor cortex and the sensory cortex.
>> Okay. So let me just summarize here for a--
there is no critical period as far as we know
for athletic skills, is that right?
>> I think that's right and--
>> But training in an early age is important.
>> I would say total-- what's important is total duration
of training rather than how early you begin that training,
that it's the, you know, it's the classic 10,000 hours plus--
>> Yes.
>> But you need to have the motivation, the drive to put
in those phenomenal hours of training.
But it's not necessarily the case if that has
to start before the age of 8 or something--
>> I see.
>> You know, the vast majority
of athletes would probably begin their sport early
on because they would have shown an interest in that.
I think there are also cases of people who've come to sport late
but putting the hours and then got to a level of expertise.
>> So the sequence for a person like me,
there is some hope of-- [Laughter] Yeah.
>> Yeah, so I think-- I mean it's interesting actually
and I think that this very compelling emerging data now
that people who take up any physical activities,
sporting activity, or even just, you know, going to the gym later
in life, that can have significant beneficial effects
on the body.
>> Yes.
>> You might not get into the Olympics possibly but--
>> Yes, yes.
>> Certainly, it seems to increase brain health
as well as body health.
>> Yes. Well, let's talk a bit about training
because it's also true of tennis, I mean tennis,
you have to train every day.
They do training.
In violin, it's true, too.
But some of the-- I mean I suppose like Roger Federer,
he's going to-- he also presumably trains every day.
So there is something impermanent,
I mean if he starts training, there is something that changes,
something atrophies, what is it, is this known?
>> Well, I think that it is certainly the case that if you--
even if you are a very-- have a very high level of expertise
in a particular skill, say tennis, if you stop practicing,
that skill atrophy and presumably what's happening
in brain terms there is that the high level of skill
that you had acquired is effectively represented
in the pattern of connections between your brain cells.
So all those hours and hours of practice
that went Roger Federer puts in on his backhand,
literary rewires his motor cortex
such that the representations of the muscles involved
in that stroke will be connected up in the right way
and right sequence so that every time he tries
that stroke regardless of his starting posture
and the position of his opponent and all these different factors,
he will produce this beautifully perfect backhand.
If he stops practicing that, then those connection weights,
those connection strengths will start to return to baseline,
if you like, although it'll get written and overwritten
by other experiences that he's having.
>> So what is the baseline?
>> Well, so the brain is continually in a state of flux.
All of our brains are dynamically changing all
of the time and these-- the synapses, the connection points,
the junction points between brain cells,
change the strengths with every experience that we have.
So there's always a possibility for any learning
that you've undertaken to be overwritten basically
by other experiences that you have in future.
>> Yes, so what about, I mean all things passed and passed,
football passed to change the tactics every now and then.
Federer changed his tactics the last tennis, the Wimbledon one.
So you get accustomed to certain backstroke within the tennis,
but things suddenly have to change, what happens then?
>> Well, that-- I think sometimes
that can be a good thing.
So if you look at the data from how practice translates
into performance, it seems that's--
to some extent contrary to our intuitions,
you can't keep getting better and better and better even
with many, many, many long hours of performance.
But what gets you a real boost is
that you have a changed in strategy.
So for example you often see this with sports people
when they change their coach,
suddenly their performance rockets up or down.
And part of that, you know, part of that might be all kinds
of social and psychological factors,
but part of it might be the new coach giving them some new
strategy or some new way of doing things
which then gives them a step change
in their performance levels.
So I think that the ability to adopt the strategy
that you take can give athletes that competitive advantage.
>> But if you take an ace champion like Federer
or Pete Sampras, one of these people,
they must have developed a certain technique,
and if they suddenly have to reverse that their technique,
it mustn't entail unlearning?
>> Yes. Yeah, I mean if you get
into a bad habit, let's say, and you--
>> No, no but it's a good habit
which have been winning ways except
that they have suddenly encountered another ace champion
who's got better technique.
>> Yes, yes.
So they're suddenly up against the [inaudible]
and you have to change that.
Yeah, so I think if you--
learning a different way of doing things can give you
that step change and give you that boost and advantage.
But if it does involve effectively unlearning a
previous habit, then that's hard because that--
the learning of your first strategy will be present
in the weights between the brain and the connections
between the brain cells.
So you have to, you know, in your terms, you would have
to reckon some of those connections,
strengthen different connections,
and that fine tuning of your brain circuits is a difficult
thing to achieve and thus, just again, require those hours
and hours of practice
with appropriate attention and motivation.
>> But has the strengthen and weakening been,
after been observed in between the cells--
>> Yes, yes.
And scientists have a very good understanding
of exactly what's going on when we--
so when we talk about strengthening of connections
between cells, that is something that's very,
very well characterized.
So you can do experiments with single cells where you can set
up types of changes between connections.
So the classical type of change that's been very well studied is
something called long-term potentiation or LTP,
which is a way in which you strengthen the connections
between the cells such that the input
from cell A will produce a bigger response in cell B
after this repetitive training.
And you can set this up in a lab to study beautifully and look
at all of the chemicals and pathways
that were involved in that.
But it's thought that exactly that type
of synaptic modification of that strengthening
of the connection is what underlies a lot
of learning and memory.
>> Yes. Well, let me summarize again.
So, no critical period, no special skills,
just the brain's potential to produce motor activity
but a lot of training.
And the possibility of regressing a training
but scientifically addresses the question of why it is
that when you stop training for a while, then things revert
to a situation where you are not as good.
But this is quite interesting, I mean if you listen to music,
if you don't listen to music for several months,
it won't affect things.
I am surprised how often I remember the tunes
which I have heard years ago.
I don't have to train for that.
So there must be some significant difference in--
>> Yes, yes but it's--
I mean it's one of the obscure interesting features
of human memory.
So you may well remember a tune that you heard many,
many years ago but you probably can't remember what you had
for breakfast last Tuesday
because it's a very unimportant detail in the--
>> Yes.
>> -- endless sequence of events that makes up your life.
So, there are clearly certain memories
which are very attention-grabbing
or emotionally salient which get laid down very, very strongly
in the brain such that even decades later they can be
recalled, whereas other day to day experiences or, you know,
half-hearted practice of a motor skill, let's say,
will not have the same ingrained effect
on those brain connections.
>> So while talking about memory, I'm quite interested
in the question of motor memories,
can we speak of a motor memory?
>> Yes, I think--
>> I mean the sequence that is not just walking
which is almost reflexive but let's say a sequence in swimming
which is especially effective or in playing golf or in tennis.
>> Yes, and I think we can think of motor memory
like any other type of memory.
And I think this-- the--
this way of thinking about connections--
strengthening connections between cells or connections
between representations in the brain is what underlies all
of these different types of learning and memory.
So if you think of learning a swimming stroke for example,
you could break that swimming stroke down into a sequence
of muscle activations, into a group of muscle activations
that have to occur in a specific sequence in time.
How that is achieved by your brain is, you know,
activation of particular populations of cells one
after another and the connections, the synapses
between those cells will be strengthened every time you
practice that stroke, those connections
between the cells will be strengthened
by these chemical cascades that we understand very well.
So that is a motor memory, so a motor memory
like any memory isn't something that you can point to.
It's not like going to a library and retrieving a specific book
which represents that particular motor memory.
But it's, if you like, it's implicit
in the connections between those cells.
>> Right, I must stop talking about tennis and Roger Federer,
let's take a great skier, Jean-Claude Killy or somebody.
Does he remember sort of major sequence he's got
to apply to-- or is it--
>> There's a difference between him consciously remembering it
and thinking about it versus his brain remembering it
such that little trace of all of those hours
of practice in his brain.
So, you know, one of the--
I don't think it's the case that he would be consciously thinking
about every aspect to that movement whenever it's produced,
one of the things
that characterizes very highly practiced movements
or any skill is that they become what we call automatic.
So by definition, what that means is
that you're not paying attention to every aspect of the movement
and that you could be doing something else at the same time
but it wouldn't affect your performance of that movement.
So, and it's only after many, many hours of skill--
of practice that these movements become automatic.
But one of the things actually interest me that differentiates
between elite sports people and regular folks is the level
at which their automaticity kicks in.
And somewhat counter-intuitively,
it seems the elite sports people that automaticity kicks
in at a much, much higher level.
So what that means is that as they're going through this sort
of mundane level of performance, they're still paying a lot
of attention in doing this movement very, very consciously
and it's not until they've reached this--
>> Yes.
>> -- very elite level of performance that they decide
"Okay, this is good enough now.
I'll allow this to become automatic,"
whereas you are only trying to learn the new tennis stroke
which would allow our brains to become automatic
in a much, much lower level.
>> Let me-- I have questions to ask about improvisation
which I think is a very interesting topic.
But the greatest tennis match I have ever watched was
between Bjorn Borg and Gerulaitis,
it was a fantastic affair.
What impressed me about that match was there was an awful lot
of improvisation going on.
Would you like to say something about improvisation?
>> Well--
>> Is there anything to say about it?
[Simultaneous Talking]
>> I 'm not aware of it having been systematically said,
but I think again what characterizes an expert
in any domain whether it's sports, science,
literature is partly sort of creativity and improvisations.
So anyone can train to do as they're told
if they have the motivational part in the training
but perhaps what gives people that edge is the ability to,
you know, creatively come up with a novel response
in a completely new situation that you haven't been trained.
>> And possibly defy the training.
>. Yes, right, because the circumstances have changed
your-- in a situation that you've never trained for
and you have to come up with a new response.
>> Okay. Now, let-- we've been talking about memory.
I would like to go back to the nerve cells and regeneration,
the Cajal statement that the--
but what happens in the developing
of [inaudible] surplus production of cell,
these cells, many of them die off.
Others are organized into the adult nervous system
and according to Cajal, nothing happens after that.
Now Joseph Altman, the Hungarian-American scientist
in the 1960s, was working in the wilderness.
No one believed him when said that there is a production
of new cells in the adult brain and he concentrated
on the hippocampus and of course, Alfred Gage
and others have since,
I mean it's now become a big industry of neuroplasty.
Why is it the hippocampus that is such a favorite region
for the birth of new cells?
The hippocampus by the way is the brain located deep inside
the temporal lobe.
It's very important in memory and very important
in emotional responses and in space perception as well.
>> Yes, so it does seem
that there's something unusually special
about the hippocampus in this regard, so--
>> It's a specific part of the hippocampus, isn't it?
>> Yes.
>> Dentate gyrus.
>> The dentate gyrus of the hippocampus seems to be one
of the very, very few brain regions where uncontroversially,
new neurons are generated in adult life.
So it seems that-- as you say in the developing brain,
new neurons are generated throughout the nervous system
very, very prolifically.
In the adults, new neurons are produced.
So they are still produced, they are produced in the ventricles,
in the fluid-filled spaces in the middle of the brains.
And then they-- but they migrate along the couple
of very specific roots, one of which goes
to the olfactory bulb, which is a very primitive small center
of the brain, and then the other root ends up in this part
of the hippocampus and--
>> But-- so in my brain, currently,
are the cells being produced in my hippocampus?
They're not in my visual cortex.
They're not in my intellectual centers.
That's for sure.
>> So there are lots-- I think there are lots of factors
which influence the amounts of what's called neurogenesis
or the birth of these new neurons in the adult brain.
And some of those-- so, age as one.
So the older we get, the fewer new cells are generated.
But then there are things that we can do to enhance the number
of cells that generates.
So physical activity, again, keeps crapping out,
but physical activity has been shown in animals
to enhance neurogenesis.
>> And in humans?
Is there any evidence in humans of that?
>> Of the neurogenesis, it's very difficult to study
that there is evidence that's physical exercise
in humans increases the size of the hippocampus.
>> I see.
>> Which could be driven by growth of new neurons,
it could be driven by the factors
like expansion of the blood vessels.
So there are various different mechanisms
or various different roots
by which increasing your physical activity might enhance
your brain function.
But there are definitely things to--
in animals, it's shown than increase
in physical activity even in adult rats increases the amount,
the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus.
It increases blood flow in the hippocampus
and that's associated with better brain function.
>> This-- before I do that, there's a question I would
like to clear up because I'm not clear about in my mind
and I'm sure many of you will be interested
to have the answer to this question.
Is there any truth that past the age of 18,
we lose thousands of cells every day?
>> I hope not.
[Laughter] I don't know.
>> I don't believe it.
But this is [inaudible], one of these old wives tales.
I didn't--
>> Yes, yeah.
>> So--
>> I mean, you need to-- without a doubt, our brains, suddenly--
I wouldn't say it was that.
I mean certainly-- so I'm far more familiar
with the literature from brain imaging experiments in humans
where we can't count individual cells but we get an idea
of the health of the brain
from these much cruder measures just looking at its overall size
and it's-- and the other measures.
And it is true that in all the range, the brain starts
to decline but interestingly, it actually--
some aspects of it continue to develop into at least
until late adolescents and early adulthood.
So the connecting pathways, the white matter
of the brain continue to develop even until early to mid-20s.
But unfortunately, once we get past the sort of--
into middle age and later, it's a pretty study downward slope
so the brain is effectively shrinking a little bit decade
by decade.
>> Actually shrinks.
>> Actually shrinks, so if you were to take--
I haven't actually done this but I could do it
in myself 'cause I've been scanned quite a few times
over the last 15, 20 years.
And I think if I were to be brave enough to look
at those images, say last year, I would probably start
to see the gradual declines.
And so if you look across a population from about, you know,
from middle age onwards, there's a slow decline
which gets steeper and steeper as we get older.
So we're faced with that in these thoughts.
Again, there are things that we can do to some extent
to not just-- not to halt that decline by any means
but certainly to slow its rate.
>> Yes.
>> So this is very, very active area of investigation
because as a population, as we get older,
problems of later life like dementia, cognitive decline
for example will become increasingly heavily burdened
on society as more and more of us has live
to the ages of 80 and beyond.
So, it's a very hot topic at the moment, what we can do
to just slow that and late in life decline.
>> But it's-- so the aspects
that it has not cleared itself declined,
that they would lose cells in their thousands after the age
of 18 but what we do know is that we do generate new cells.
>> We do continue to generate new cells and--
>> Is it not paradoxical
that these cells are generated in the hippocampus?
Well, that's one is the favorite places.
Would that be correct?
>> Yes.
>> And yet, that is also one of the places that is most affected
in cases like Alzheimer's disease which leads
to the loss of memory?
>> Yes, it's interesting.
It seems that there is some, you know, the special role
for the hippocampus throughout life is being a center,
if you like, or a key structure certainly for memories
and it has this special ability to generate new neurons.
And yet, it's also somehow especially vulnerable
to disease later on in life and I'm not sure
that it's well understood how those things connect.
>> So is there any other part of the brain where you have birth
of new cells or regeneration of axons and dendrites
which is quite as prolific as in the hippocampus?
>> So the birth of new--
well, so these interesting distinctions,
the birth of new cells seems to happen in lots of places
but there's a very important distinction between neurons,
the sort of classic nerve cells versus other type of cells
that are found in the brain.
And there is a big controversy in the field as to whether
or not areas outside of the hippocampus are able
to generate new neurons specifically so there is--
>> Areas outside the hippocampus but the hippocampus can?
>> Yes. The hippocampus can but areas particularly in the cortex
so that the sheet on the outside of the brain which is where many
of these sort of higher cognitive areas are located,
some laboratories have claimed to show evidence of neurogenesis
in adults, in adult monkeys typically
in these cortical areas but this is a very controversial finding.
And my understanding is
that there's debates rage among these neuroscientists
as to whether what's being measured is actually new neurons
or other processes, for example,
growth of this new what's called glial cells,
so these supporting cells of the brain which are very important.
And, in my opinion, it would be interesting
if they would proliferate, you know, late.
>> Yes.
>> But they're not, but they're not neurons.
>> Yes. There is a-- this is--
I think of the subject a little bit quite interesting
and there's a question if we're injecting the hippocampus
with stem cells that was--
this apparently has got some administrative consequences.
Is this true?
>> Yeah. I mean I think that there are trials happening
in many, many different neurodegenerative disorders
where, you know, doctors try to introduce these immature cells
into the brain in the hope that they will develop
into mature neurons and find the right connections.
It's a very, very hard thing to do because obviously,
you have to hope that these neurons specialize
to be the right type of cell,
that the processes grow properly, end up--
grow and develop to the right places.
So it's a very, very hard thing to do.
I mean I think that there's a lot of potential there.
There have been some very interesting,
some very encouraging early results but I thinks it's,
you know, it's early days.
>> Yes. Well, so we do have, at least in the hippocampus,
the best new cells probably nowhere
in the neural cortex, do you think?
>> I think I'm not well qualified to judge but in my--
it's a very controversial topic.
My take on it is that it seemed to be more people
in the [inaudible] camp than there are
in the [inaudible] camp.
>> Yes. But there is a room for--
I mean I think it's known
that there is considerable development of new synapses--
>> Absolutely so that the idea--
>> Connections.
>> Yes, so the idea of existing cells changing the structure
with learning I think is beautifully well established
in the cortex.
So there are techniques now
with which people can directly observe this dynamic turnover
of synapses in a living brain.
So they do this in rats typically.
So if you, for example,
have a set up whereby a rat is learning a new movement skill,
so one classic task they would be trained to reach
for a single food pellet.
It's quite a hard thing for a rat to do.
It's not a natural behavior for them
so it might take them quite a number of days to learn how
to produce this [inaudible], so you can think of it
as [inaudible] to the sports person learning a new tennis
stroke let's say.
You can use a very sophisticated type of microscope and imaging
to visualize an area of the brain
where you're literally looking
at these new synapses coming and going.
So the synapses, these junction points of the brain are located
on tiny little processes called dendritic spines,
so each of neurons would have a sort
of branching tree of dendrites.
On each of the dendrites, there would be many, many thousands
of tiny little spines.
And on the end of the spines, there would be a synapse.
With this type of imaging, you can see these spines coming
and going in there and all of those, now,
there would be spines growing and retracting
but that does seem to be tied to learning.
So when the rats are learning this new movement sequence,
you see a net increase in the number of spines specifically
in the area that's doing this learning and the amounts
of new spines produced seems to relate
to how much they are learning.
So the rats that are learning the most or the rats
that are producing the most new connections in that brain area.
So that seems to be prolific all over the brain.
>> Yes. And in cases like Alzheimer's disease,
is there actually a loss of neurons in the hippocampus
or new neuron generated, what do you think?
>> And so, I think that there's definitely extensive neuronal
loss and there's accumulation of actually bits of debris
which will affect the neuronal function so there's dysfunction,
there's degeneration, there is loss.
>> You know, it always seems to me--
very interesting to me that when we address questions
like Alzheimer's disease, we are always addressing what's lost
but equally impressive is what's actually not lost, I mean,
to very advance stage, Alzheimer's patients can talk,
they can carry out their movements, they can--
they might forget that they lock the door but they can lock it
and that's a considerable skill
and I don't think we have addressed enough this question.
I want to move on to the last section but before that, I'd--
it's not my habit to make a joke but I'm going to make a joke
about memory, about two-- I think I can afford that to do.
This joke is about elder people playing golf in London and says
to the other, "I'm sorry, my eye sight is fading
and I cannot see where the ball goes.
Can you?" The other one says, "Yes I can.
Shall we play?"
They played.
He shoves the ball, he says, "Did you see where it went?"
"Yes, yes I have."
"Can you tell me?"
"I forgot."
[Laughter] Let me go to another part of the discussion which I'd
like to address before we ask questions from the audience.
In training for sports, to what extent do you actually have
to train, to what extent do you watch,
and how much just watching somebody who's very proficient
athlete reorganize your brain?
>> It's a milestone, isn't it?
'Cause we were prepared to watch two weeks of Olympics and--
>> Yes.
>> And they had been sitting in the front of the TV--
>> We are all hopeful, yes, yes.
>> Okay. [Laughs] Yes, but it's an interesting question 'cause
there's very interesting interactions
between the perception of movement particularly
and the actual production of that movements so there's a type
of cell in the brain that's very well described called the
mirror neuron.
So there are certain areas of the motor system which seem
to contain these mirror neurons which mean
that they will respond, these cells fire, they get active
when an animal produces a certain movement but also
when they see another animal produce
that self-- say movement.
So they seem to be involved both in the production
of the movement and in observing that very same movement.
They are very interesting because they're thought
to be maybe a very-- an early type of--
but they might be able
to underlie certain types of communication.
So, obviously in speech, in communication, what one has
to do is relate what we are producing to what the person
that we're observing is producing.
But in animals, you don't have communication,
you still have these types of mirror neurons present
and it seems that they might underlie some of the effects
that have been-- that are very commonly used
in sports training, for example,
this idea that just imagining yourself producing the perfect
free kick, imagine yourself increase your chances
of producing that free kick.
So, I think that many sports people anecdotally report
that they will visualize themselves, you know,
producing the perfect penalty or the perfect free kick.
And that helps them to produce it.
I think that the way their brains response
when we either observe somebody else producing an action
or we imagine producing the action is actually very,
very similar to how it would respond when we generate
that action ourselves other than that final command
to the muscles, much of the brain activity is the same.
And it seems that that system is very,
very sensitive to expertise.
So, there have been experiments done, for example,
with dances showing that if you take ballet dancers and ask them
to observe videos of other dances producing certain ballet
moves, then that mirror system will particularly strongly
activate when the moves that they're observing are moves
with which they have expertise.
So for example, you can look at male and female ballet dancers
and the females might be-- actually, if anything more used
to observing the male moves and yet,
their mirror system must strongly activate
when they see the female moves that they have expertise with.
So, it seems that there's this sort of simulation system
of the brain if you like that--
>> Yes.
>> -- self can then train them into system.
>> So, that by just by watching, you can't actually--
but it is not known whether the cells are modified.
This is, you know, a behavioral observation.
>> Yes, so it seems
that imagining yourself performing a movement
to some extent improves you a bit.
So, the sports psychologists certainly think
that improves your ability to produce the movement.
In the clinical setting, it's used as well.
So, if you take stroke patients who are completely paralyzed,
there's some evidence, not a huge amount but a small amount
of evidence to suggest
that simply imagining producing the movements
because that's activating the brain systems involved
in movement.
That can help to at least very slightly facilitate recovering
those patients who are initially unable to produce any movements.
>> I heard in the-- during the football match recently,
one of the players say on television
that he'd watched 20 hours of footage
of the opponent's game before he went.
Now, that of course, is to prepare his strategy.
But I wonder the extent to which it also modified,
of changing moves slightly different way.
I just wondered--
>> Yes, definitely, and that him watching
that footage would be completely different
to your eye watching that footage.
So, because he is--
>> Yes.
>> -- because he's an expert in that domain,
he would have watched it in a very different way.
So, there's another and very interesting study
in basketball players showing
that when you have the players observe basketball players
taking shots firstly, they're much more accurate
than non-players at predicting whether or not the ball's going
to go in which isn't particularly surprising.
But if you wind them up to what's called an EMG machines
or machine to measure their muscle responses,
then what you see only in these expert basketball players is
that even before the player on the video releases the ball,
the observing basketball player is activating the muscles
which will determine the success or failure
of that basketball shot.
So, it seems that they, you know, inadvertently
and unconsciously are activating a mirroring
of what they're seeing and they're observing to produce
that sequence of movements in their own brain and even
to the extent of the muscle.
So, the hand isn't moving but your subthreshold,
below threshold activating those muscles,
and that's allowing them to predict whether
or not the ball is going to go in.
[Inaudible Remark]
>> I heard one and after recently,
who was playing [inaudible] saying that he had watched hours
of Laurence Olivier [phonetic] doing it.
I wondered to what extent it--
I wondered it was always a good thing actually because it--
perhaps, I think it is.
Okay. So we have explored the field.
I think the interesting thing that has come out of this
for me is how much-- how many interesting questions there are
to ask in sports medicine and in terms of training,
in terms of rewiring and the plasticity of nervous system.
It seems that we've just come to the surface, really,
as enormous amount of very interesting things
to do and to learn about.
And let me just end up before I invite questions,
ask you how do you see that the quality, say the quality
of tennis when I was very young is very different
to the quality of tennis today.
Quality of tennis today depends upon brute force,
very strong rackets.
And the thing about that, there's--
the rallies are not as evident as they used to be before.
Do you think that the quality of sports will--
do you think we're doing enough in research
that will change the quality of playing in sports?
>> Well, sport definitely is changing whether it's
for better or for worse.
If you take sports in which you can compare performance
over the years like races, for example when you have times
over the years, every Olympic sport of that kind,
performance is increased
over the last hundred years without exception.
So obviously, some of that is due to, you know, equipment,
trainer, manufacturers and things like that
which facilitates your performance
but those developments in equipment can't explain all
of the improvements in performances.
It seems that there's something different whether it's partly
to do with our physiology,
changing over that time people are getting, you know, taller,
stronger, better nourished or whether it's partly to do
with the strategies that people employ.
So, as you say, maybe in tennis,
the nature of the game has changed.
It's not just the people are getting faster or stronger
but the tactics changed and the training strategies changed.
So it's, you know, the sports training does evolve over time
which affects the nature of the sport itself.
>> But if we were-- before it reach a stage
where we understand that some kind of intervention, of course,
there had been interventions in terms of drugs and things
but there are some kind of intervention which is healthy
to increase the plasticity of the brain than nature
of sport could change in a different way, wouldn't it?
>> Yes, so that means many interventions
that we know should facilitate plasticity.
So, it's a very interesting ethical dilemma as to whether
or not one should apply that in the context of sports training.
So for example, in my lab, we do lots of studies
on the stroke rehabilitation.
We try to enhance brain plasticities through things
like brain stimulation, for example.
Using electrical currents to stimulate the brain
in such a way that plasticity is more likely to occur.
If you-- a couple of that stimulation
with movement training physiotherapy then,
patient's response to that physiotherapy gets stronger.
So, for a given dose of physiotherapy,
you can boost response to that dose
by stimulating the patient's brain.
You could do the same thing with the drug
that enhances plasticity.
So, it's not a very interesting question
in the context of sports.
If I were to, you know, train the GB Rowing Team
and they're own, their [inaudible] wind
up to brain stimulation machine, the data would predict
that they would learn quicker
and that they would reach a better level of performance.
Is that the same as them taking a drug
to enhance their performance on the competition day or not,
I think, is a very interesting question.
>> It's an interesting question to discuss.
Let me say you alluded the fact that training is good for health
and good for memory and there's an interesting news I came
into this morning that perhaps, lack of training,
lack of exercise kills as many people every year
as obesity and smoking.
Now, let's have some questions, many, many questions.
>> All leaps of innovation are genius, more likely
or exclusively likely to happen in a younger brain.
And is there anything you can ingest such as vitamins
or something like that that can help to counteract the aging
of the brain in that respect in terms of innovation?
>> My personal experience is nothing counteracts the effects
of aging.
>> Yes, I'm not sure of the literature on whether--
I mean experience suggests
that innovation can occur throughout life
and that there are certain individuals
who continue to make innovations.
And I think it varies a lot
between different fields of expertise.
So, classically, for example, mathematicians tend
to peak much, much younger than other types of scientist,
who tend to peak later.
So, I think there are certain types of thinking
which are particularly efficient in young brains
but there are other types of insight or wisdom, if you like,
which might benefit from the experience of an older brain.
So, I think it would depend very, very much on the domain
in which that insight was needed to happen.
I mean, in terms of whether we can take particular vitamins,
I think you mentioned to facilitate that,
I think that's an open question so the idea
of cognitive enhancement through drugs or through vitamins,
I think, is a very active area of research.
There are certainly some drugs
which might increase concentration or attention.
>> I was thinking about natural things
because I [inaudible] electroshocks,
but it said that intense levels of vitamin C can actually help
in Alzheimer's patients?
That was in a year or so ago.
>>Yes, and I think that there have been certain studies
which have suggest that positive--
which have suggested positive effects.
So, there might be some instances, you know,
things like fish oils have been shown
to have some positive effects in dyslexics
or on violent behavior and criminal.
So, this, you know, there's many isolated studies,
but I think we don't as
yet understand well enough what the mechanism are,
the underlying, all those different effects.
>> I don't think the evidence
for vitamin C helping Alzheimer's memories is
good myself.
I-- if it had being good,
it would have been used much more extensively, okay.
But it is worth reminding ourselves that some
of our greatest have achieved their greatest--
the ripe old age.
Churchill is one of them, de Gough [phonetic] is another,
[inaudible] is the third,
and the Japanese painter Hokusai said,
"Don't take anything I did before the age of 70 seriously."
[Laughter] It's interesting.
Just having a-- yes, yes sir?
Yes, yes, yes, yeah?
[ Inaudible Remark ]
>> Well, I'm sure that--
>> So, to check again, so you're saying
that all the people are better at recognizing--
very rapidly recognizing a pattern like counting the number
of people in a room whereas--
>> Yeah. I think that the brain is a different [inaudible].
I think that many people
that are sitting here has got logical manner of thinking,
but they are not so good at the instantaneous recognition.
But in the case of the football pitch, they may be not so good
that the logical thinking, but very,
very good at the instantaneous recognition.
>> Yeah, I think there's definitely sort
of different domains of ability and expertise so that people
who are good at one type of thinking, for example,
might be poorer to another type of thinking.
So, which can give you some counterintuitive results,
like as you say that perhaps chimpanzees are better
at certain types of--
>> Yeah, my question is the--
>> Then I think I could--
>> -- is then kind of age limit?
>> Let me say on that that, of course,
you can develop your visual expertise.
I'll be surprised if a tennis player
and a football player were not proficient--
were not more proficient than me in detecting the movement
of the other player's balls.
I'm sure this is--
>> Yeah, and in fact--
and I think it's been shown that in sports where people have
to rapidly process visual information
like racket sports, for example.
They have quicker early visual responses.
So, you can measure visual responses using EEG,
measuring the brain waves
and those early visual responses are faster specifically
in sports people who are in these rapid responding sports.
>> Yes, yeah.
Okay, yes sir?
>> Would you say that someone who spends years practicing
to be a brilliant football player or tennis player,
especially changing the chemistry in the brain,
and if it's a chemical change in the brain, could you imagine
in the long distant future because Einstein said,
"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
Could you imagine in the future that they would be transferrable
from one to another, just the chemistry?
And if it's going to be sooner, can I volunteer now?
>> So, my take on that would be
that the prolonged training would be unlikely
to change the brain chemistry in a long term way.
I think short term, dynamic changes
in brain chemistry are absolutely critical for learning
and plasticity to occur and that maybe somebody is--
in someone who's highly practiced,
those chemical changes might happen much,
much more efficiently, much quicker
or to a much greater degree when they're undergoing the training.
But I don't think that you would see long term stable differences
in brain chemistry as a result of that training.
It might well be the case that individual differences
in brain chemistry to begin with will determine our chances
of becoming a sports person.
So, for sure, individual differences
in brain chemistry influence things like mood and anxiety
which themselves would probably have a big influence on whether
or not somebody is motivated to participate
in very intensive training regimes.
>> Thank you.
>> [Inaudible].
To what extent our motoneurons a feature of the motor cortex?
>> So the-- so this particular--
>> In case people did not hear,
to what extent our motoneurons a feature of motor cortex?
>> So, there's particular areas of the motor system
where motoneuron seem to be most concentrated.
So, it's actually the premotor cortex.
And I recall the premotor cortex which is just in front
of the motor cortex, which is where--
which is one of the regions where you'd expect to see lots
of these motoneurons more so than the motor cortex itself.
So, the motor cortex is actually sending the signals
to the spinal cord.
It seems like some of these--
if you light higher areas in the motor system,
contain these interesting motoneurons.
[Inaudible Remark]
>> There is a point which has never seized
to interest and surprise me.
There is no direct connection between visible areas,
the already visible areas and the motor cortex.
So, if I want to play football or volleyball, it's just very--
the visible information for me
to hit the ball does not go straight to my visual cortex
or my motor cortex, it goes by a circuitous route.
And why it does that is an interesting question
which has not been resolved
and which has never seized to fascinate me.
I don't know the answer.
>> You mentioned several times in our talk
that sports is better for your brain and it provides
for the better functioning of the brain,
but I have a specific example in my head
which I can't just get rid of and it's the--
say that was actually done on London taxi drivers,
maybe [inaudible] become a classical example
in neuroscience books.
And so, you'd probably know this study,
but basically what they found is that over the long fact,
these are not passing the knowledge test.
You can see the clear path in that specific part of the brain.
I can't remember which one is it.
It's actually much bigger than--
>> Hippocampus.
>> Exactly.
And-- but it actually comes with a cost because another parts
of the brain actually becomes smaller.
So, is it really during sports better for you or--
to me, it seems that sports works as an meditation factor
that helps, you know, memory and retention.
Okay, what I thought is all that.
>> That's a really good question.
So, there is this really interesting observation
that taxi drivers, a particular part of hippocampus is larger.
And now, it's been shown that, you know,
as they acquire the knowledge, it gets larger.
So, it does really seem to be related to that training.
It's interesting-- it's not clear to me that that relates
in a straightforward way to what we we're discussing
about the effects of physical activity on hippocampus
and hippocampal neurogenesis, but one of the special things
about the hippocampus is that it seems
to be particularly important
for spatial navigation and spatial memory.
And obviously, navigating around the streets of London is a very,
very, very classic test of one's spatial navigation.
And to be able to do that is becoming an expert
in spatial navigation.
So, I think that in the taxi driver's example, the reason why
that posterior hippocampus is bigger is
because they are extreme experts of spatial navigation.
But it's also the case that if you would just to take
up physical exercise, physical activity, that would increase
that the size of your hippocampus,
but presumably wouldn't give you an advantage
in spatial navigation.
So, there's different things at work there, I think.
>> In a more general context,
I think your question probably can be translated
into the supposition which I have
that if you are very proficient--
let's forget about taxi drivers, really, very proficient
in Mathematics, and you probably are neglecting other things.
I mean mathematicians are often [inaudible].
[Laughter] Okay.
Right, let's have another question.
[ Noise ]
>> My question is about cases of neurodegenerative disease
and specifically Parkinson's disease.
How can we take what we know about plasticity
and the response to injury and apply it to those patients,
and specifically do you think
that vigorous specialized athletic training
and participation in sport could be of benefit to those patients?
>> I think it's a good question.
It certainly seems to be that aerobic exercise has benefits
across a wide range of different disorders in Park--
there have been some studies done in Parkinson's disease.
So, it seems that, you know,
being physically active has some benefits with the brain
which might-- which could potentially be quite
non-specific, that they're increasing blood flow
to the brain and that's generally a good thing.
It produces various chemicals that help with brain--
with the survival of neurons for example.
So, I think that generally, physical exercise would help.
But in terms of training whether you could
in a targeted way train people with neurodegenerative disease
to somehow counteract the effects of the disease
on the specific movements is a really interesting one.
And I think it's really hard in the case
of a progressive neurodegenerative disease.
It's-- in a way, it's much harder
than in the case of stroke.
So, with stroke, there's an acute insult.
There's an amount of damage that's been done
which is completely irreversible,
but it's not characterized as being progressive.
So, you have a stable playing field with which you can play
with what's left to the brain to try and relearn those movements,
things like Parkinson's disease aren't progressive.
Another tricky thing
about Parkinson's is it affects the very neuronal machinery
that underlies certain types of motor learning.
So, people with Parkinson's might find it particularly
difficult to learn new kinds of movements.
So, it's a hard case,
but definitely physical activity seems
to be pretty generically beneficial.
>> Heidi, I really think I should ask this question
because everybody is interested to know what it is.
What are the chances of having an effective cure
in the coming 10 to 20 years for things like Parkinson's disease?
We've spent an awful lot money on it.
We have quite an awful lot of knowledge about the motor system
and yet there seems to be an intractable problem.
Is there any help?
>> I think that neuroscientists are pursuing lots
of different avenues.
So, I think there's obviously--
there's a search for drug interventions
which might have some help,
stem cell therapy you mentioned earlier.
You know, there's a potential
that you could be maybe inject some new cells
that if they are able to develop properly could help.
But in all of these cases, one of the problems is
that you're faced with this continual progressive disease.
I'm not aware of anything which has happened in the short term
for halting that progression.
I think what you can do is try and ensure the defenses,
you know, so that you minimize the effects
of that progressive neurodegeneration,
but I'm not aware of anything that suggest that it's possible
to halt it completely.
>> Yes?
>> And then I've got high-level question
which I'm not sure you've answered.
What's the brain for?
>> Are you addressing-- it must be to you, this question.
>> That's an interesting--
so different neuroscientists will give you very different
answers to that.
I would argue that, you know, the brain allows us to act
in our environment which you know, the end result
of that action is often a movement, but in order
to produce our actions while movements involves an awful lot
about the mental functions.
So, to act on the world, we have to perceive it,
we have to evaluate it, we have to make a decision
about what action we're going to produce.
But ultimately, it's all about producing those actions.
I think whether that be a movement or whether
that be a verbal response.
>> May I also answer your question.
I have to agree with you.
I think the brain is there for us to be able to take action,
have a motor response which is why the motor cortex is
so interesting.
However, you can only undertake these actions,
you can only have a motor response if you have knowledge
about what you want to respond to,
and therefore the brain is also there for knowledge.
So, I would say that it is motor response primarily,
but you can only have a motor response
if you know what you're going to respond to.
So, it brings in the question of knowledge.
But there is perhaps [inaudible] in your question,
something really quite interesting which is
that if you'll look at a gold fish
which has we called a tiny brain,
it has got very good color constancy.
In other words, it can tell you that something is green even
when it reflects more red light, in another context.
Now, for humans and for monkeys to do that,
they have a huge part of their brain devoted just to that
which makes you wonder why you need this kind
of extravagant expenditure
when the goldfish can do it so effectively.
[Laughter] So, it's interesting.
>> I have a question.
>> So-- yes?
>> Given the success of the Kenyan runners in the marathon,
could it be that their success can be put down either
to genetic factors or environmental and lifestyle?
And if people already have a history of achievements
in certain levels of sports,
could that competence markedly affect their performance?
>> Yeah, I think you raised lots and lots
of interesting questions there.
So, there are definitely, you know,
there are definitely certain genetic differences
which might increase ones chances
of being a successful athlete, so those might affect the body.
So, for example, there's a case of a finish skill
who has a particular genetic mutation
that affects the concentration of hemoglobin in his blood
which basically means that oxygen gets more efficiently
to where it needs to go.
So, there might be physical differences
which could then be more concentrated
in a particular population.
There are also genetic differences
which might give you an advantage in terms of how
and you could learn, you know,
maybe in a long distance running, there's less scope
for learning being an important factor.
But, you know, there's some scope
for some genetic difference, but I think the other thing
as you mentioned to do with--
almost to do with expectation or, you know,
cultural difference that if a particular group
or a particular country,
a particular culture values very highly at a particular type
of sport, then that in itself might give them a
competitive advantage.
And there's many, many examples, I guess, of countries excelling
in a particular domain.
And whether that's because they strategically thought, you know,
we could exploit this or whether they're partly exploiting,
you know, physical characteristics
which are more predominant in that country
and I'm not sure if it's known.
>> There's an interesting comment which we'll end
on to raise your question of Yun-Bok [phonetic]
when he won Wimbledon the fourth time.
A reporter asks him, "What else do you want?
You've got money.
You've won the Wimbledon four times a record.
What do you want?"
He said, "I want to win it a fifth time."
[Laughter] And that is, I think, it refers to the success,
bringing success, but also a reflection of the sport
in Olympic spirit which infects us because we also want
to be achieving things in our domains.
Now, I want to thank you so much for coming from Oxford
and giving us your knowledge and you expertise,
all of you for attending, and you're all welcome
to cross the road and have some wine at university college
in the north corner-- in the south place, is it?
In the [inaudible], anyway you will be drinking.
Thank you all very much.
Thank you.
[ Applause ]