BACKGROUND: There is no doubt that good bimanual performance is very important for skilled handball playing. The control of the non-dominant hand is especially demanding since efficient catching and throwing needs both hands.
METHODOLOGY/HYPOTHESES: We investigated training-induced structural neuroplasticity in professional handball players using several structural neuroimaging techniques and analytic approaches and also provide a review of the literature about sport-induced structural neuroplastic alterations. Structural brain adaptations were expected in regions relevant for motor and somatosensory processing such as the grey matter (GM) of the primary/secondary motor (MI/supplementary motor area, SMA) and somatosensory cortex (SI/SII), basal ganglia, thalamus, and cerebellum and in the white matter (WM) of the corticospinal tract (CST) and corpus callosum, stronger in brain regions controlling the non-dominant left hand.
RESULTS: Increased GM volume in handball players compared with control subjects were found in the right MI/SI, bilateral SMA/cingulate motor area, and left intraparietal sulcus. Fractional anisotropy (FA) and axial diffusivity were increased within the right CST in handball players compared with control women. Age of handball training commencement correlated inversely with GM volume in the right and left MI/SI and years of handball training experience correlated inversely with radial diffusivity in the right CST. Subcortical structures tended to be larger in handball players. The anatomical measures of the brain regions associated with handball playing were positively correlated in handball players, but not interrelated in control women.
DISCUSSION/CONCLUSION: Training-induced structural alterations were found in the somatosensory-motor network of handball players, more pronounced in the right hemisphere controlling the non-dominant left hand. Correlations between handball training-related measures and anatomical differences suggest neuroplastic adaptations rather than a genetic predisposition for a ball playing affinity. Investigations of neuroplasticity specifically in sportsmen might help to understand the neural mechanisms of expertise in general.