Wellness

Science says busting a move boosts brain health in addition to burning cals

Whether or not you think you can dance, hit the floor already. Your mind will thank you.

February 26, 2018

(Credit: Getty Images)

Scientists have been studying the "bust a move" regions of your brain and, as it turns out, they don't just help you stay on beat while cutting a rug, they may make you healthier the more you use them. Research has consistently shown that it's not only the body that benefits from hitting the dancefloor more often — your brain gets a beneficial boost when you Whip and NaeNae.

You need quite a bit of your brain tissue to boogie. In fact, if you could watch a brain scan of your thinker while it learned and executed a dance routine, you'd see a lot of different cerebral regions light up. Your motor cortex would flash while you plan every step, slide and shuffle. Your somatosensory cortex would blip as it regulates hand-eye coordination. Your basal ganglia would gleam while coordinating smooth move transitions and your cerebellum (aka tiny brain. Adorable.) would flicker as it put it all together with an assist from your spinal cord, so that you could keep the complex actions going without thinking too hard about them — and maybe free up enough capacity to let you to tell your partner how lovely they look tonight.

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But one recent study out of MIT has finally pinned down the precise region of the brain that helps you groove. The cerebral neighborhood in question is called the posterior parietal cortex, and along with managing physical actions, like your next dance move, it's also charged with key capacities like paying attention and perceiving our environment in 3D. Researchers say that the prime function of your posterior parietal cortex when you're dancing is rhythm detection, or a handy brain system called "relative timing", which allows you to predict and process repetitive sounds like a funky bass line booming in your earbuds or your favourite club's speaker system.

The study, which was the first of its kind to connect rhythm detection to an exact brain region, successfully halted the rhythmic ability of 25 healthy adults when their respective posterior parietal cortices were zapped with a steady magnetic pulse. In fact, when the region was suppressed, subjects were out of commission for about an hour —  they couldn't pick up a beat to save their lives.

If surveying our brain on beats doesn't strike you as a good use of scientific funding, consider that studies like this join a growing sphere of important research linking human processing of movement, sound and time (aka dance) to health. The numerous rhythm-based brain studies for treating unforgiving diseases like Parkinson's alone — extreme tremors and gait variability are common in Parkinson's and at their worst, walking and movement freezes up altogether — make this area of medical research some of the most exciting for advancements in human health.

One such study saw a marked improvement in the stride of Parkinson's sufferers when they listened to rhythmic music as they walked. The treatment is known as Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) and researchers claim it works because "rhythm activates the neural circuits involved in motor processing, and these neuroanatomical connections permit music (or rhythm) to act as a cue for movement." People with Parkinson's experience relief because they're able to anticipate tempo as they listen to music and match their movement to the beat, thereby overriding an "impaired internal timing function." Compellingly, the music doesn't need to come from a distant source. Even singing has been shown to alleviate some of the more pernicious motor misfires brought on by the disease, and a supplementary study showed that sufferers of Parkinson's experienced less gait variation when they listened to a simple recording of footsteps on gravel. Important aside: rhythmic therapies have been applied to treatment of kids on the Autism spectrum too.

It's worth noting that the healing properties of moving to music are likely applicable to everyone, not just those struggling with major illnesses. Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine examined the effects of 11 common leisure activities as they pertained to the risk of dementia in the elderly. Favourites like swimming, golf, tennis and cycling were all investigated, but the study found just one that mitigated the chances of dealing with acute mental decline. "Dancing," reads the paper, "was the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia." Researchers maintain that the winning partnership is likely social interaction and mental effort.

A study from last year backs that up, highlighting dancing as the singular activity for its anti-aging effect on yet another area of the brain: the hippocampus. Along with regulating emotions, your hippocampus also manages learning, long-term memory and balance. When dancing was pitted against endurance training in elderly subjects over the course of 18 months, it came out on top by measurably increasing the brain region. Dr. Rehfeld explains that " the mental challenge of acquiring a new physical skill set offered by a complex dance routine puts it in a cognitive health boosting class of its own. Based on the research, Rehfeld adds that her team is currently evaluating a new brain-healing dance system of their own design. It's called "Jymmin" (a mashup of jamming and gymnastics). Science to the rescue with a new dance craze.

The consistent cognitive enhancements dancing provides across studies may be attributable, in part at least, to the many positive emotions it affords. On The Brain, Harvard Medical School's Mahoney Neuroscience Institute newsletter, confirms that several "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." Reminder that your posterior parietal cortex, which picks up booty-shaking bass lines, also governs executive functions like time management and decision making, so the brain regions you need to perform at your best also allow you to perform while tripping the light fantastic. Couple that with the measurable mood boosting effects and you'd be hard pressed to find a solid reason against lacing up those dancing shoes.

The massive evidence stacked in favour of dance as a healing agent begs the question: does being an innately good dancer mean you're one step ahead in terms of cognitive health? Could be. An early aptitude for gross motor skills, like those you'd need to ace a twerk, has been linked to clear cognitive advantages. One study found that infants who stood up with assistance as early as nine months tended to rate higher at age four on the Battelle Developmental Inventory, which tests five crucial areas of human development: cognitive, motor, communication, personal-social development, adaptive (or self-reliance) and communication. Oddly enough, that correlation didn't hold true in twins, so experts do warn not to panic if you or your tiny dancer didn't stand until later. A lot of factors affect childhood development.

That said, whether you've always been naturally nimble or fate has fitted you with two left feet matters not. The scientific case for shaking a leg has been made, and soundly so. Hit the dancefloor and repeat as needed (which, as far as science is concerned, seems to be as often as your dance card will allow).


Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news.