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What happens to your brain when you Dance? - October Blog


Most people associate dancing with positive physical effects for the body but did you know that ballroom dancing, doing the foxtrot, break dancing, line dancing, any dance really, can also benefit your brain?!


Relatively recently neuroscientists began to investigate the complex mental coordination required to dance. Imaging studies have identified which regions of the brain are activated by dance and how physical and expressive elements of dance alter brain function and this has allowed researchers to hypothesize that music stimulates the brain’s reward centers, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits and that is a winning combination for brain health.


Studies have shown that dance (more so than other physical activities including swimming, cycling and tennis) can improve brain health and from 11 different types of physical activity, a participants’ risk of dementia was only lowered by dance, perhaps because it involves mental effort and (usually) some kind of social interaction. So while the benefits of the physical activity associated with dance are similar to those gained from physical exercise (including stress reduction and increased serotonin) there are also bonus benefits that range from memory improvement, strengthened and/or new neural connections and improved spatial recognition.


Many of us have heard of Zumba as a fitness trend but this Latin-style dance workout is also known to improve mood, visual recognition, decision-making and other cognitive skills.



Dance has been found to be therapeutic for patients with Parkinson’s disease (a motor-system disorder, which develop when the dopamine-producing cells in the brain are lost. The chemical dopamine is an essential component of the brain’s system for controlling movement and coordination. As Parkinson’s disease progresses, an increasing number of these cells die off, drastically reducing the amount of dopamine available to the brain.

According to the foundation, the primary motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include bradykinesia (slowed movement), stiffness of the limbs and trunk, tremors, and impaired balance and coordination. It is these symptoms that dance may help alleviate.

Tarsy says that dance can be considered a form of rhythmic auditory stimulation (RAS). In this technique, a series of fixed rhythms are presented to patients, and the patients are asked to move to the rhythms. Studies of the effects this technique has on patients with Parkinson’s or other movement disorders have found significant improvements in gait and upper extremity function among participants. Although there have been no side-by-side scientific comparisons of RAS with either music or dance, Tarsy says people with Parkinson’s “speak and walk better if they have a steady rhythmic cue.”

Complementary moves

At the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Peter Wayne, AM ’89, PhD ’92, an HMS assistant professor of medicine at the hospital, studies the clinical effects of mind-body and complementary/alternative medicine practices on patients with chronic health conditions. He has conducted clinical trials designed to evaluate the safety and efficacy of tai chi for patients with Parkinson’s and other balance disorders. Tai chi is a Chinese martial art once used for self-defense but now performed as exercise. Wayne considers tai chi to be a more ritualized, structured form of dance.

“The focus of our work is to take advantage of traditional exercises in which it’s implicit that the mind and body are connected more efficiently,” says Wayne. “Tai chi is one such exercise that we focus on because of its benefits for both balance and mental function.” Research, he says, has shown that the increased susceptibility to falls that occurs among people who are aging or who are dealing with disorders such as Parkinson’s can be mitigated by the practice of tai chi; it improves their strength and flexibility as well as their cognitive performance.

One such study appeared in 2012 in the New England Journal of Medicine. In this study, a team of investigators led by a scientist at the Oregon Research Institute found that tai chi helped improve balance and prevent falls among people with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease. After six months, those who practiced tai chi twice weekly were physically stronger and had better balance compared with those who did either weight training or stretching. On average, the participants who did tai chi achieved balance measures that were two times better than those achieved by weightlifters and four times better than those participants who stretched. Those people who practiced tai chi also fell less and had slower rates of decline in overall motor control.

Tarsy says there is evidence that such activities as dance and tai chi can stabilize the effects of Parkinson's disease and slow the degree to which everyday movement is affected.



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