UCLA recently released the results of a study which surprised some very accomplished researchers---but not me. I don't claim to have a fraction of the intelligence and certainly cannot compare with the education levels of these researchers, but I already knew what they are so excited to discover. However, I am VERY excited about new research to support the connection between mobility and brain function---especially with how it connects to learning.
Professor Mayank Mehta led the UCLA research team in analyzing the gamma rhythm---typically originating in the hippocampus---in mice. According UCLA Newsroom, "The researchers found that the strength of the gamma rhythm grew substantially as running speed increased." This may not be thrilling enough to keep many people up at night---but let's look a little deeper at the inferences and implications of this one finding.
First--the hippocampus. The hippocampus is part of the limbic system--which is largely responsible for processing emotion, smell and sound. The hippocampus is horseshoe shaped, with one side of the horseshoe in the left brain and the other side of the horseshoe in the right brain. This structure serves by indexing our memories and sending them to the proper cerebral areas for storage, and also by retrieving these memories when called upon. The hippocampus is critical for learning processes and is the focus for research into Alzheimer's Disease, dementia and other memory-related diseases.
Understanding the role of the hippocampus in the retrieval of information makes it easy to see its vital role in learning. The gamma rhythm in the hippocampus is critical during periods of concentration and learning. This rhythm is known to be controlled by attention and focus. The study from the UCLA team was shocked to find that running speed also controlled the gamma rhythm. So this gives us an extra factor to control the gamma rhythm and thereby improve learning. If you struggle with attention and focus, you can turn to running as another source to improve your gamma rhythm and make learning easier. This should give all PE teachers and track coaches more ammunition to combat funding cuts for their programs in schools. It should give parents motivation to get their children running. Children have every reason to DEMAND their parents run---no one wants to suffer watching their parents slowly fade away as the memory increasingly fails. (I'm getting on the treadmill right after I finish this article. I promise!)
But what if you can't run well? What if you are uncoordinated and thus run slowly? (The study specifically pointed to gamma rhythm improving as the running speed increased.) If lack of stamina prevents you from running fast, then more running and aerobic exercise will increase your stamina. But if coordination is the obstacle, then more uncoordinated running will not lead to coordinated running. This is where an understanding of ontogenetic function becomes very important. Ontogenetic functions are those where one neurological function done in sufficient quantity and quality lead ONTO the next higher level of function. In mobility, this pattern goes like this:
1. Ability to freely move all joints and limbs
2. Crawl on the belly in a coordinated fashion (aka army crawl or commando crawl)
3. Creep on hands/knees in cross pattern (commonly called "crawling" in the U.S.)
4. Walk using the arms for balance
5. Walk independently in a cross pattern
6. Run in a coordinated cross pattern
So, if one ability in the ontogenetic pattern is not appropriate, we look at the previous skill and stimulate it. So if creeping is awkward, look to crawling. If walking or running is uncoordinated, creeping organizes the ability to walk/run.
Why? Because the brain functions from the BOTTOM UP. Impulses are received and sent to our spinal cord, which then sends the signals upward to the base of the brain---the medulla spinalis. The medulla processes signals and then sends them to the pons. They are then routed through the various parts of the midbrain, where they are processed and sorted out to the various areas of the cortex. If at any point in this process there is some disorganization or improper processing, the area of the brain which is next to receive the signals is operating on faulty information---so of course, we can't expect perfect function from faulty input. And where did the faulty input come from? The "lower" level of the brain. This is very simplified but adequately explains why we focus on lower levels of function to help higher levels of function--because the brain functions from the bottom up.
So now, back to our UCLA study---running improves the gamma rhythm. This is solid evidence which is now atop the mountain of previous studies of various areas of the brain that point to one particular fact---movement is the organizer of the brain. Dr. Svetlana Masgutova said it most succinctly when she said, "You cannot change a brain without moving." Research is pointing to running to help with depression, anxiety, preventing Alzheimer's, dementia, and now learning.
This is NOT just exercise in general, as is touted by many. This is coordinated, cross patterned movement. Aerobic dancing, swimming, yoga, pilates, etc all have MANY wonderful health benefits, but they are not cross-patterned (the opposing arm/leg move in synchrony) and thus not beneficial to these particular neurological patterns. They are not effective at targeting the specific areas of the brain we want to----basically the overall organization and efficiency.
Crawling, creeping, walking, and running are neurological organizers. They have many other great side effects like increased respiration and disease prevention, and that makes them very desirable for anyone who is struggling or whose child is struggling. Mobility in all its glory is beautiful to see---the whole country stops to watch the Olympics, the Super Bowl, etc. We just need to remember this isn't something reserved for professional athletes and it is quite possibly the answer to learning problems and other neurological challenges. Simple and effective---sounds good to me! Now I really should keep my promise and get on that treadmill. :)
The study can be read at www.plosone.org/article/info:doi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.Pone.0021408