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Phone: (352) 438-2810

Dancing and the Brain


By Scott Edwards

Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute – On the Brain

December 2015


Millions of Americans dance, either recreationally or professionally. How many of those who are ballroom dancing, doing the foxtrot, break dancing, or line dancing, realize that they are doing something positive for their bodies – and their brains? Dance, in fact has such beneficial effects on the brain that it is now being used to treat people with Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological movement disorder.


"There's no question, anecdotally at least, that music has a very stimulating effect on physical activity," says Daniel Tarsy, MD, an HMS professor of neurology and director of the Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC). "And I think that applies to dance, as well."


Stimulating Movement


Scientists gave little thought to the neurological effects of dance until relatively recently, when researchers began to investigate the complex mental coordination that dance requires. In a 2008 article in Scientific American  magazine, a Columbia University neuroscientist posited that synchronizing music and movement – dance, essentially – constitutes a "pleasure double play." Music stimulates the brain's reward centers, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits….


While some imaging studies have shown which regions of the brain are activated by dance, others have explored how the physical and expressive elements of dance alter brain function. For example, much of the research on the benefits of the physical activity associated with dance links with those gained from physical exercise, benefits that range from memory improvement to strengthened neuronal connections.


A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine discovered that dance can decidedly improve brain health. The study investigated the effect leisure activities had on the risk of dementia in the elderly. The researchers looked at the effects of 11 different types of physical activity, including cycling, golf, swimming, and tennis, but found that only one of the activities studied – dance – lowered participants' risk of dementia. According to researchers, dancing involves both a mental effort and social interaction and that this type of stimulation helped reduce the risk of dementia.


In a small study undertaken in 2012, researchers at North Dakota's Minot State University found that the Latin-style dance program known as Zumba improves mood and certain cognitive skills, such as visual recognition and decision-making. Others studies show that dance helps reduce stress, increases levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin, and helps develop new neural connections, especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory, and spatial recognition.


Study Identifies Brain Cells That Help People Learn By Watching Others

Neurons also fire during secret glee of schadenfreude.

By Elaine Schmidt
UCLA Newsroom
September 7, 2016

Picture a little boy imitating his father shaving in the mirror or a little girl wobbling proudly in her mother’s high heels.

From infancy, we learn by watching other people, then use those memories to help us predict outcomes and make decisions in the future. Now a UCLA—Caltech study has pinpointed the individual neurons in the brain that support observational learning.

Published Sept. 6 in Nature Communications, the findings could provide scientists with a better understanding of how the brain goes awry in conditions like learning disorders and social anxiety disorder.

In a secondary finding, the research team also discovered that neurons in the same region fire in response to schaden­freude—the pleasure of seeing someone else make a blunder or lose a game.

“Observational learning is the cornerstone for our ability to change behavior,” said senior author Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Seine! Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “it’s human nature to want to learn from other people’s mistakes rather than commit your own.

Said lead author Michael Hill, a former UCLA and California Institute of Technology scientist now based at the Swiss National Science Foundation: “The ability to quickly learn from others can give humans a critical edge over other species. The skill also contributes to someone feeling he or she is a member of one culture versus another.”

Prior to the study, Fried implanted electrodes deep inside the brains of people with epilepsy being treated at UCLA—a standard medical procedure used to identify the origins of epileptic seizures prior to surgery. The researchers used the electrodes to record the activity of individual neurons in the brains of 10 people playing a card game.

Players were instructed to draw a card from one of two decks. One deck included 70 percent of the winning cards, while the other deck contained only 30 percent of the winning cards. Each person took turns choosing cards on his or her own and then watched two other players draw cards from the same decks. By learning from the results of their own and the other players’ choices, the participants quickly zeroed in on the deck containing better cards.

The research team was surprised to discover that individual neurons deep in the frontal lobe reacted as the patient considered whether they or their oppo­nents would pick a winning card. Called the anterior cingulate cortex, the region plays an important role in high-level functions like decision making, reward anticipation, social interaction and emotion.

“The firing rate of individual neurons altered according to what the patient expected to happen,” I-fill said. “For example, would their opponents win or lose? The same cells also changed their response after the patient discovered whether their prediction was on target, reflecting their learning process.”

The findings suggest that individual nerve cells in the person’s brain used the details gleaned by observing the other players to calculate which deck to choose a card from next.

“The anterior cingulate cortex acts as the central executive of human decision-making, yet we know little about the neuronal machinery at this level,” said Fried, who is also a professor of neurosurgery at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University.

According to the authors, the findings will help scientists better understand the organization of neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex and exactly what they do.

Fried and Hill propose that active stimulation of the neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex could influence human behavior and have possible benefits for people struggling with learning disabilities or diffi­culty reading social cues.

The researchers observed that the cells in the same -region fired vigorously each time a person won or the other players lost, and decreased their activity when­ever the person lost or the other players won.

“While obviously we don’t know precisely what it is that these neurons encode, it’s fascinating to see something like schadenfreude reflected in the activity of individual neurons in the human brain,” Hill said.

Copyright UCLA
Brain in the News, Vol. 23 No. 8, October 2016 – The Dana Foundation

Scientific paper: https://goo.gl/aaaXXq