Archive for the ‘focus’ Category

Researchers at The University of Auckland have shown for the first time that the mere presence of carbohydrate solution in the mouth immediately boosts muscle strength, even before it is swallowed.

The results suggest that a previously unknown neural pathway is activated when receptors in the mouth detect carbohydrate, stimulating parts of the brain that control muscle activity and producing an increase in muscle strength.

Previous research had shown that the presence of carbohydrate in the mouth can improve physical performance during prolonged activity, but the mechanism involved was not known and it was unclear whether a person must be fatigued for the effect to be seen.

“There appears to be a pathway in the brain that tells our muscles when energy is on the way,” says lead researcher Dr Nicholas Gant from the Department of Sport and Exercise Science.

“We have shown that carbohydrate in the mouth produces an immediate increase in neural drive to both fresh and fatigued muscle and that the size of the effect is unrelated to the amount of glucose in the blood or the extent of fatigue.”

The current research has been published in the journal Brain Research and has also captured the attention of New Scientist magazine.

In the first of two experiments, 16 healthy young men who had been doing biceps exercises for 11 minutes were given a carbohydrate solution to drink or an identically flavored energy-free placebo. Their biceps strength was measured before and immediately afterward, as was the activity of the brain pathway known to supply the biceps.

Around one second after swallowing the drink, neural activity increased by 30 percent and muscle strength two percent, with the effect lasting for around three minutes. The response was not related to the amount of glucose in the bloodstream or how fatigued the participants were.

“It might not sound like much, but a two percent increase in muscle strength is enormous, especially at the elite level. It’s the difference between winning an Olympic medal or not,” says co-author Dr Cathy Stinear.

As might be expected, a second boost in muscle strength was observed after 10 minutes when carbohydrate reached the bloodstream and muscles through digestion, but no additional boost in neural activity was seen at that time.

“Two quite distinct mechanisms are involved,” says Dr Stinear. “The first is the signal from the mouth via the brain that energy is about to be available and the second is when the carbohydrate actually reaches the muscles and provides that energy,” says Dr Stinear.

“The carbohydrate and placebo solutions used in the experiment were of identical flavor and sweetness, confirming that receptors in the mouth can process other sensory information aside from the basic taste qualities of food. The results suggest that detecting energy may be a sixth taste sense in humans,” says Dr Gant.

In the second experiment, 17 participants who had not been doing exercise and were not fatigued simply held one of the solutions in their mouths without swallowing. Measurements of the muscle between the thumb and index finger were taken while the muscle was either relaxed or active.

A similar, though smaller effect was observed as in the first experiment, with a nine percent increase in neural activity produced by the carbohydrate solution compared with placebo. This showed that the response is seen in both large powerful muscles and in smaller muscles responsible for fine hand movements.

“Together the results show that carbohydrate in the mouth activates the neural pathway whether or not muscles are fatigued. We were surprised by this, because we had expected that the response would be part of the brain’s sophisticated system for monitoring energy levels during exercise,” says Dr Stinear.

“Seeing the same effect in fresh muscle suggests that it’s more of a simple reflex – part of our basic wiring – and it appears that very ancient parts of the brain such as the brainstem are involved. Reflexive movements in response to touch, vision and hearing are well known but this is the first time that a reflex linking taste and muscle activity has been described,” she says.

Further research is required to determine the precise mechanisms involved and to learn more about the size of the effect on fresh versus fatigued muscle.

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Article adapted by MD Sports from original press release.
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Contact: Pauline Curtis
The University of Auckland

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Neuroscience researchers at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore have shown for the first time what happens to the visual perceptions of healthy but sleep-deprived volunteers who fight to stay awake, like people who try to drive through the night.

The scientists found that even after sleep deprivation, people had periods of near-normal brain function in which they could finish tasks quickly. However, this normalcy mixed with periods of slow response and severe drops in visual processing and attention, according to their paper, published in the Journal of Neuroscience on May 21.

“Interestingly, the team found that a sleep-deprived brain can normally process simple visuals, like flashing checkerboards. But the ‘higher visual areas’ – those that are responsible for making sense of what we see – didn’t function well,” said Dr. Michael Chee, lead author and professor at the Neurobehavioral Disorders Program at Duke-NUS. “Herein lies the peril of sleep deprivation.”

The research team, including colleagues at the University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania, used magnetic resonance imaging to measure blood flow in the brain during speedy normal responses and slow “lapse” responses. The study was funded by grants from the DSO National Laboratories in Singapore, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the NASA Commercialization Center, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Study subjects were asked to identify letters flashing briefly in front of them. They saw either a large H or S, and each was made up of smaller Hs or Ss. Sometimes the large letter matched the smaller letters; sometimes they didn’t. Scientists asked the volunteers to identify either the smaller or the larger letters by pushing one of two buttons.

During slow responses, sleep-deprived volunteers had dramatic decreases in their higher visual cortex activity. At the same time, as expected, their frontal and parietal ‘control regions’ were less able to make their usual corrections.

Scientists also could see brief failures in the control regions during the rare lapses that volunteers had after a normal night’s sleep. However, the failures in visual processing were specific only to lapses that occurred during sleep deprivation.

The scientists theorize that this sputtering along of cognition during sleep deprivation shows the competing effects of trying to stay awake while the brain is shutting things down for sleep. The brain ordinarily becomes less responsive to sensory stimuli during sleep, Chee said.

This study has implications for a whole range of people who have to struggle through night work, from truckers to on-call doctors. “The periods of apparently normal functioning could give a false sense of competency and security when in fact, the brain’s inconsistency could have dire consequences,” Chee said.

“The study task appeared simple, but as we showed in previous work, you can’t effectively memorize or process what you see if your brain isn’t capturing that information,” Chee said. “The next step in our work is to see what we might do to improve things, besides just offering coffee, now that we have a better idea where the weak links in the system are.”

 

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Article adapted by MD Sports from original press release.
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Contact: Mary Jane Gore
Duke University Medical Center

Other authors of the study include Jiat Chow Tan, Hui Zheng, and Sarayu Parimal of the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School; Daniel Weissman of the University of Michigan Psychology Department; David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; and Vitali Zagorodnov of the Computer Engineering Department of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania say that practicing even small doses of daily meditation may improve focus and performance.

Meditation, according to Penn neuroscientist Amishi Jha and Michael Baime, director of Penn’s Stress Management Program, is an active and effortful process that literally changes the way the brain works. Their study is the first to examine how meditation may modify the three subcomponents of attention, including the ability to prioritize and manage tasks and goals, the ability to voluntarily focus on specific information and the ability to stay alert to the environment.

In the Penn study, subjects were split into two categories. Those new to meditation, or “mindfulness training,” took part in an eight-week course that included up to 30 minutes of daily meditation. The second group was more experienced with meditation and attended an intensive full-time, one-month retreat.

Researchers found that even for those new to the practice, meditation enhanced performance and the ability to focus attention. Performance-based measures of cognitive function demonstrated improvements in a matter of weeks. The study, published in the journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, suggests a new, non-medical means for improving focus and cognitive ability among disparate populations and has implications for workplace performance and learning.

Participants performed tasks at a computer that measured response speeds and accuracy. At the outset, retreat participants who were experienced in meditation demonstrated better executive functioning skills, the cognitive ability to voluntarily focus, manage tasks and prioritize goals. Upon completion of the eight-week training, participants new to meditation had greater improvement in their ability to quickly and accurately move and focus attention, a process known as “orienting.” After the one-month intensive retreat, participants also improved their ability to keep attention “at the ready.”

The results suggest that meditation, even as little as 30 minutes daily, may improve attention and focus for those with heavy demands on their time. While practicing meditation may itself may not be relaxing or restful, the attention-performance improvements that come with practice may paradoxically allow us to be more relaxed.

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Article adapted by MD Sports Weblog from original press release.
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Contact: Jordan Reese
University of Pennsylvania

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Penn Stress Management Program.