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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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Medicine
The World's First VR Brain Surgery Is Here
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A lot of consumers are focused on virtual reality as a means of immersing themselves in games or traveling to exotic locales, but the technology holds some incredible potential as a learning tool. One recent—and graphic—example is VR brain surgery, which allows viewers to examine the amygdala like they never thought possible.

In the experience, which was produced and overseen by Fundamental VR at the Royal London Hospital, users will be able to follow along with surgeons as a patient is wheeled into the operating room and undergoes a real neurosurgical procedure to repair two aneurysms (balloon-like bulges in an artery that can rupture). Cameras installed in the OR and GoPro units on the surgeons provide a first person-perspective; you can also switch to the POV of the patient as instruments enter and exit your field of view.

The idea was embraced by surgeons at Royal London, who see it as having the potential to be a valuable training tool for neurosurgeons by mimicking "hands on" experience. Although the footage is best seen using a VR headset, you can get a feel for the experience in the YouTube footage below. Did we mention it's very, very graphic?

More sophisticated versions of the program—including tactile feedback for users—are expected to be implemented in Fundamental VR's surgical training programs in the future. Currently, programs like Surgical Navigation Advanced Platform (SNAP) are being used at major institutions like Stanford University and University of California, Los Angeles to map the brain prior to incision.

If this whets your appetite for witnessing brain operation footage, don't forget we filmed and broadcast a live brain surgery in partnership with National Geographic. You can still check it out here.

[h/t Wired]

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Health
How Dangerous Is a Concussion?
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It's not football season, but the game is still making headlines: In a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, neuropathologist Ann McKee and her colleagues examined the brains of 111 N.F.L. players and found 110 of them to have the degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The condition has been linked to repeated blows to the head—and every year in the U.S., professional and novice athletes alike receive between 2.5 and 4 million concussions. This raises the question: What happens to the human brain when we get a concussion or suffer a hard blow to the head, and how dangerous are these hits to our long-term health?

Expert Clifford Robbins explains in the TED-Ed video below:

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