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In the swing

In an effort to improve current stroke rehabilitation strategies, researchers at the University's Brain Research Imaging Center (BRIC) are seeking answers from that other type of stroke-the golf swing.

"Preparing to swing a golf club is the perfect activity for this sort of study," says John Milton, associate professor of neurology and the study's director. "A good golf swing involves a very elaborate and somewhat unnatural series of movements, yet it takes place in a fraction of a second, much too quickly for the brain to make the necessary adjustments during the process." A golfer's pre-shot visualization probably has a greater effect on the shot's outcome than the golfer's thoughts during the shot, says Milton, who also directs the Program for Executive Health's Golf Neurology Clinic.

"If we're lucky, we'll be able to see the difference between brain mechanisms that plan a motor task and those that execute a motor task," says Milton's colleague Steven Small, associate professor of neurology and an expert on functional brain imaging.

The swing's pre-programmed nature, Milton hypothesizes, suggests that the brain's processes before the shot are similar to those during the shot. If the golf study affirms this, it would indicate that the same brain paths are established whether one visualizes a movement or physically performs the movement. For victims of strokes and other brain damage, this could translate to a whole new method of rehabilitation-one based on mental rather than physical exertion.

Data collection began July 22nd, the weekend of the U.S. Women's Open, held in nearby Libertyville. Nine top female golfers volunteered for the study, which compares elite golfers' pre-visualization patterns with those of amateur and novice golfers.

The chance to study brains that have learned the golf swing so thoroughly is of "tremendous utility" in the effort to improve stroke rehabilitation, Small says. "There aren't that many people in the world who have this level of skill," which suggests that the brains of elite golfers "may be wired in a very special way."

To study the pros' wiring, the researchers, including Arizona State University assistant research professor of exercise science Debbie Crews (a Class A LPGA teaching professional), used functional magnetic resonance machines to detect cerebral blood movement. Tracking such movement, the researchers can determine which parts of the brain a top golfer uses when preparing to swing.

Milton's team suspects that extremely ingrained skills-like walking, running, and in the case of professional golfers, swinging a golf club-are functions of a part of the brain that has little connection to conscious thought.

When elite golfers first learn golf skills, they use a part of their brain that deals with less ingrained movement. As swinging a club becomes automatic, the skill shifts to a different part of the brain. This displacement of skills within the brain is key to Milton's study because it mirrors stroke victims' attempts to re-ingrain skills such as walking.

After the LPGA golfers left town, the research team studied a group of nine novice and amateur golfers whose ages matched those of the pros. Unlike elite golfers, when the less-skilled golfers swing, they use the part of the brain reserved for conscious thought. Next, say the researchers, the amateurs will be given golf lessons to see whether, as it becomes ingrained, swinging a golf club goes from being a skill of the conscious brain to one of the subconscious.

- Lucy Biederman

  OCTOBER 2000
  > > Volume 93, Number 1

  > >
Déjà views
  > >
Women in white
  > >
Gay studies at Chicago
  > >
Reclamation project

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