The review of literature is a synthesis of findings by various authors who have explored the topic of Increasing Neuroplasticity to Improve Sports Performance. Sources for the process were obtained from different databases, including Ebscohost, Google Scholar, PubMed, and CINAHL Plus with Full Text. The search used key terms drawn from the topic, including Neuroplasticity, neurons, sports, and Sports Performance among other terms. The search strategy generated hundreds of articles with various combinations of keywords. However, the study narrowed down to 16 sources, which were relevant to the question because they were explicitly about increased neuroplasticity and its role in improving sports performance.
The brain of animals and humans adapt quickly to changing demands in their environment. The response emanates from alterations in the structural and functional aspects of the brain (neuroplasticity). The process results from learning and acquisition of new skills, which affects the cognitive function. Research on animals and humans reveal that neuroplasticity of specific brain structures are improved by physical exercise or activity. Evidence from research has shown a close relationship between physical exercise and neuroendocrinological alterations (Budde et al., 2016). The changes are critical in improving performance in sports through training, such as the development of motor skills, by affecting the parts of the brain that can be changed to respond to the environment.
Researchers delve into the relationship between neuroplasticity and sport. Fry (2019) investigated the role of neuroplasticity, which works across developmental stages and affects the learning process as well as the development of behaviors or habits. The process has an implication on various sporting identities and human life in general. Success in sports requires improved performance through functions such as skills development, which relates to neuroplasticity. The elite sports settings support the research on performance in humans because of the high demand for cognitive and physical activity. Effective sports performance depends on various cognitive skills, including perception, attention, decision-making, and working memory. The increased demands of competition during the events also increase the load on the central nervous system (Tan et al., 2019). Studies reveal that physical activity plays a role in inducing functional and structural changes in the brain. In addition, the aspect of being active helps in neurodegeneration. Therefore, changes in biological aspects based on neurodegeneration mechanisms can improve physical activity, which in turn, enhances brain health. The effect follows the brain plasticity as well as epigenetic mechanisms in human and animal experimentation (Mandolesi et al., 2018). The adaptation of the brain to the environment is essential in the improvement of physical activity.
Brain Imaging and Sports Performance
The development of neuroimaging capabilities has led to significant competencies in the study of brain activity during physical performance or activity. Tan and colleagues (2019) conducted studies to reveal the role of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in studying the human brain during physical activity. Besides the fMRI, the study focused on other neuroimaging procedures, including functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and electroencephalography (EEG). The tools provide potential in studying the cognitive demands of sports events and other physical exercises. They establish the role of neuroplasticity of sportspeople as well as biofeedback training in improving performance. Although these instruments might fail to work in a lab setting due to practical and technical constraints, the neuroimaging technology has enabled the study of the changes to establish the role of neuroplasticity in sporting events and performance.
Neuroplasticity in Motor Skill Learning
Neuroplasticity is essential in the development of motor skills in humans and animals. In their research, Costa, Cohen, and Nicolelis (2004) studied the neural assembles’ activity in the primary motor cortex and dorsal striatum when mice underwent training in motor skills. They conducted the study by recording neuronal activity from various parts of the brain when the mice were awake. The results of the survey revealed that extensive task-involved neurons’ recruitment in corticosteroid circuits. The findings indicated an increase in the task-oriented neural circuitry in the various parts of the brain. Since they conducted the study across an extended period, they observed that filing profiles of the neurons continued to change with continued slow motor skill learning. They concluded that further refinement of the movement led to more changes in cortical and striatal neurons.
More recently, research has focused on the neural substrates of motor skill learning. Dayan and Cohen (2011) took advantage of development in neuroimaging to explore the functional organization of the brain during acquisition, consolidation, and retention of motor skills. Their study focused on previous findings regarding the plasticity of neurons and the alterations that occur during short periods of motor skills learning. They used data from experimental animals to establish the changes in cellular and molecular aspects underlying the physical activity in humans. The authors concluded that functional and structural plasticity occurs at different levels during motor skills development. Sagi and coauthors (2012) conducted a similar study to establish brain activity during learning; however, their study involved human subjects using the MRI to examine changes in the brain during the activity. The findings of their research revealed significant changes in the diffusion MRI indices during short-term learning (2 hours). The results of their study were similar to studies that explored the brain acidity during the learning process in rats. Hence, the scholars concluded that changes in the MRI recordings reflected various structural aspects of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity and Improved Performance
From the perspective of developing motor skills, neuroplasticity can affect performance in sports. Park and colleagues (2019) conducted their study to establish the effect of transcranial direct current stimulation on submaximal running performance. The results of their research revealed that the primary motor cortex improved submaximal running time to exhaustion when the subject was running at 80% intensity. However, they did not find any change in cardiorespiratory responses during the process. Through the running process, running time to exhaustion improved, indicating that transcranial direct current stimulation-induced ergogenic effect. Similar changes were observed during cycling following a transcranial direct current stimulation intervention in male participants. The study revealed the role of pain in exercise tolerance because of its afferent feedback. A number of exercise-induced metabolites generate pain during high-intensity exercises. The pain is detectable through group III and IV muscle afferents (nearby muscle nociceptors). The process allows the person to make crucial decisions regarding the intensity of the exercise.
Neuroplasticity is useful in improving motor skills learning, which enhances performance in various sporting activities. Arns, Kleinnijenhuis, Fallahpour, and Breteler (2008) explored the effect using golf. Their research revealed that the optimal state of mind for golf putting reveals evident individualized patterns. The authors suggested a learning impact that demonstrated the potential for the real-life strategy through neurofeedback that can improve the speed of learning. They further proposed a possible role of learning related to contextual instead of operant conditioning, indicating the potential for professional application to enhance motor skills learning and performance in various sports, including golf.
Applications of Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity plays an essential role in other areas, indicating its widespread use in various settings. Albert (2019) conducted a recent study to establish the role of the changes in the neuron in depression. In the background of his research, he indicated the involvement of neuroplasticity in synaptic reorganization in reaction to stressors in a person’s environment. The change in the brain underlies the ability of humans to learn, adjust, and remember. However, the researcher indicated that in mental disorders, such as depression, maladaptive plasticity takes place. As a result, the process causes persistent depressive symptoms, including anhedonia and rumination. Therefore, specialists can take advantage of corrective neuroplasticity to restructure the brain and correct maladaptive behavior.
Further research has revealed the role of the brain process in depression treatment. Levy and coauthors (2018) had earlier discovered the role of the brain neurons in addressing depression. Their study established that depression is caused by atrophy and impairment of working of the cortico-limbic parts of the brain that helps in regulating emotions and moods. They further suggested that changes in neurotrophins cause impairment of neuroplasticity. The negative changes are responsible for the development of depressive symptoms. Consequently, antidepressants are effective in changing the neuroplasticity to alter depressive reactions.
Although the above two studies are not directly related to sporting activities, they support the role of neuroplasticity in the various functions of the brain, which can be applied in motor skills learning. The study by Albert (2019) revealed the potential to affect neuroplasticity, depending on various objectives, such as to correct the depressive symptoms by producing long-lasting remission. Experts can use pharmacological and brain stimulation strategies to induce the necessary neuroplasticity. Therefore, considering the critical role of the brain function in affecting performance, experts can harness the capability to improve performance and motor learning skills (Park et al., 2019). Neuroplasticity can provide the avenue for learning how to improve performance in sporting events.
Physical activity plays a vital role in the development of brain health. Since research has proven the significance of neuroplasticity in sports and physical activity, experts can apply the findings to induce physical activity. Training in athletics has been shown to improve performance ability because the brain affects endurance capacity. The human brain has a network of neurons, while its potential is limitless. They are responsible for many human behaviors. Recent research followed the performance of 10 ultra-endurance athletes over about 4,500 km (Perrey& Mandrick, 2012). A similar study revealed a positive effect of transcranial direct current stimulation in the improvement of endurance (Angius et al., 2016). Perrey and Mandrick (2012) collected data using brain imaging scans. The results of the study revealed that cerebral atrophy led to a decline of about 6% through the period of the race, which took two months. The investigation relates to the role of neurophysiological processes in enhancing or reducing endurance depending on way brain is made to work. Researchers suggest the potential of increasing endurance by affecting neuroplasticity. Besides, improvement in physical activity enhances brain health.
Various other health benefits of neuroplasticity are proven in the research on sports and athletics. Gokeler and colleagues (2019) revealed the role of neuroplasticity in helping athletes to return to active training and performance following an injury by taking advantage of neuroplasticity. Injuries are common in athletics and can affect their potential for future performance. However, after an injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), athletes can still manage to resume training and achieve an optimal level of performance and prevent future injuries. Therefore, their rehabilitation can take advantage of neuroplasticity through motor learning to re-acquire motor skills. The use of motor learning principles suggested in the study by Gokeler and colleagues (2019) reveals the potential of neuroplasticity in sports rehabilitation after an injury.
A similar study that revealed the role of neuroplasticity in the recovery from anterior cruciate ligament injury was conducted by Grooms, Appelbaum, and Onate (2015). According to their study, fundamental changes occur in the nervous system as well as mechanical alterations during an injury. Since they are neuroplastic effects, they can be reversed by using mechanisms that work on the neurons. Such changes, as well as biomechanical alterations, can be used as part of the recovery and return to play. Other studies have supported the use of the concept of neuroplasticity in improving performance in sports and athletics. For example, Parker and coauthors (2011) revealed the role of phosphatidylserine (PS) in reducing stress and increasing the performance of golfers, cyclists, and runners. Potentially, the components removed from plants’ and animals’ cell membranes affect endocrine response and cognitive function before and after intense resistance exercise. The study showed that phosphatidylserine considerably affected cognitive functioning before the exercise, which could be beneficial to athletes as well as non-athletes.