Physical activity and cognitive training both produce benefits for the brain - no-one will
dispute that, so these researchers asked themselves whether we could combine the two to get even greater effects. Thinking on your feet is literally what dancers do, as they are constantly learning new steps, figures, choreographies: intellectual constructions that they have to make into a physical reality. So what does all that do for their brains? A dance training program was compared with an endurance strength training program over 6 months then a further 12 months on two groups of aging people (average 68 years old). Only the dance training increased plasma levels of BDNF, or brain-derived nerve growth factor, and brought about increases in grey matter in the precentral gyrus and the parahippocampal gyrus. The precentral gyrus is essential for the control of voluntary motor functions, a part of the brain that was obviously challenged by learning new complex motor coordinations over a long period. The parahippocampal gyrus is important for working memory, and other studies have shown that its volume decreases with age, and is even a marker for the onset of Alzheimer's disease, so it is particularly useful and encouraging to know that we can reverse the effects of aging on this structure by dancing.