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Running Ultramarathons May Shrink Your Brain

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Competitors in races like the Ironman triathlon and the TransEurope-FootRace (TEFR) know before they ever start training that these races will be tough on their bodies. But what about their brains? A recent study suggests that the brain does take a hit during ultramarathons. Fortunately, the researchers also concluded that the damage is temporary.

An ultramarathon is any footrace longer than a marathon’s 26.2 miles. Distances usually range from 31 to 100 miles, and the races are often conducted off road on trails or through parks. The longest races last for days. Runners frequently experience blisters, gastrointestinal distress, stress fractures in their feet, and even hallucinations. Still, ultrarunning enthusiasts say it’s all worth it. 

The researchers studied 44 runners in the 2009 TEFR, which involved a 64-day trek from Italy to Norway with no rest days. The race was the equivalent of about 100 marathons. Understandably, scientists took an interest. Just what does a challenge like that do to the human body?

The research team brought portable MRI machines, checking up on the runners’ legs, feet, hearts, and brains along the way. They used a technique called voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to scan the brains of 12 male runners before, during, and after the race. They also monitored a control group made up of physically fit men of the same ages as the race participants. 

Two findings stood out. First, the runners’ cartilage began breaking down in the first half of the race, but recovered as the race continued. “It was thought that cartilage could only regenerate during rest,” researcher Uwe Schütz told New Scientist. “We have shown for the first time that it can regenerate during running.”

They also learned that the ultrarunners’ brains were shrinking by as much as 6 percent as they ran. The culprit? Schütz suspects under-stimulation. Running through the same landscape day after day would offer little in the way of new information for the runners’ eyes, he told New Scientist. 

But the loss was only temporary. Eight months later, the runners’ brains were back to their pre-race baselines. “It is hard to explain what’s going on,” Schütz admitted to New Scientist. He noted that regular marathons won’t have the same effects.

Schütz shared his findings this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

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7 Science-Backed Ways to Improve Your Memory
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Being cursed with a bad memory can yield snafus big and small, from forgetting your gym locker combination to routinely blowing deadlines. If your New Year's resolution was to be less forgetful in 2018, it's time to start training your brain. The infographic below, created by financial website Quid Corner and spotted by Lifehacker Australia, lists seven easy ways to boost memory retention.

Different techniques can be applied to different scenarios, whether you're preparing for a speech or simply trying to recall someone's phone number. For example, if you're trying to learn a language, try writing down words and phrases, as this activates your brain into paying more attention. "Chunking," or separating long digit strings into shorter units, is a helpful hack for memorizing number sequences. And those with a poetic bent can translate information into rhymes, as this helps our brains break down and retain sound structures.

Learn more tips by checking out the infographic below.

[h/t Lifehacker.com.au]

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How Your Brain Turns Words Into Language
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Language is one of the things that makes us human—so much so that our brains can’t function the same way without it. But when it comes to actually speaking, reading, and listening to words, some parts of our brain do more heavy lifting than others. Life Noggin broke down this process in a recent video.

Before speaking a word you just heard out loud, that information must first travel to your primary auditory cortex, then to a part of the brain called the Broca’s area, and finally to your motor cortex, which makes verbalization possible. The Wernicke’s area of the brain also plays an important role in listening to and processing language: If it’s damaged, the speaker’s ability to form coherent sentences suffers.

Knowing more than one language shapes the brain in totally different ways. According to one recent study, bilingual speakers can perceive and think about time differently, depending on which language they're using. Learning a second language as an adult can also improve mental function and slow brain decline later in life.

For the full scoop on how our brains use language, check out the video below.

[h/t Life Noggin]

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