ABCNews.com – December 2004
Scientists Look to Golfers’ Brains to Find Solutions for Paralysis
By Lindsey Tanner
For Tiger Woods and other elite athletes, it’s called the zone — an altered state of being that enables them to focus so deeply on performing that their actions become almost automatic, and success comes much easier.
Now, University of Chicago scientists are peering deep into the brains of professional golfers to find out what happens on a neurological level when they enter that elusive zone. Researchers hope the answers will lead to new methods of helping stroke patients relearn tasks such as walking. In a sport considered one of the biggest mind games of them all, golfers can take time to make big drives, chips and putts in their heads before taking the shots.
Recovery by Thinking Dr. John Milton, a University of Chicago neurologist leading the new study, believes that brain activity during this “imaging” phase is exactly the same as during the actual physical movement. “Should you have [stroke patients] walk around the block to have them learn to walk again or try visualizing it instead?” Milton asked as he paced around a research lab turned into a putting green. Nine top women golfers volunteered for the study, in a setting far different from the hushed silence of a tournament course. With a green carpet rolled down a laboratory hallway in front of her, LPGA tour veteran Michelle Bell prepared to raise her putter while undergoing an electroencephalogram, or EEG, on Saturday. As her dark eyes darted to and from the makeshift hole a dozen feet away and her hands gripped the putter, Bell seemed oblivious to the 12 electrodes stuck to her head. They were attached to thin wires leading to an electric jack box strapped around her waist. Researcher Debbie Crews stood nearby at a video monitor measuring Bell’s brain waves while the golfer imagined the putt, and then took it.
Locating Focus Her EEG showed tall, spiky alpha waves emanating from the brain’s left side during the visualizing phase and smaller beta waves from the right side when she swung the club. The brain’s left side is where more analytic thoughts take place, and, as expected, proved to be more active when the golfers were deep in concentration, said Crews, an assistant research professor in exercise science at Arizona State University. In another part of the study, the golfers were strapped for 80 minutes into the dark, noisy tunnel of a magnetic resonance imaging machine, a brain scanner that provides multidimensional images of the brain and looks deeper into the brain than the EEG. Golfers again visualized shots while photographs of a fairway and green were projected onto a screen.
Finding the Zone With data from the MRI and EEGs, researchers hope to pinpoint where exactly in the brain neural activity takes place when athletes are in the zone, Milton said. Milton said he suspects it’s deep within the brain’s subcortex, where natural reflexes also originate. Results won’t be known until after the study’s next phase, when the LPGA golfers’ scans will be compared with tests on amateurs to see how brains acquire and store commands that control complex movement. Todd Parrish, a neuro-imaging researcher at Northwestern University, said other research has been done on the process of visualizing a task, but he called Milton’s focus on motor movements and imagery a “unique twist.” If Milton can show that visualizing can cause “motor pathways to strengthen” in the brain, “that’s going to be a tremendous difference” for stroke patients, Parrish said.
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