Let’s switch gears for a minute. For this Ty the Neuro Guy article, let’s just nerd out about some cool neuroscience research. Since Branch Out’s Bike Tour is just around the bend, this research has to do with cycling.
Your Brain on Bikes
In order to understand what goes on inside the brain, neuroscientists have to use some sort of neuroimaging (e.g. brain scans), but these approaches have almost exclusively required a person to stay still and do very boring tasks (like careful not to fall asleep boring). While we are learning a lot about the brain, this knowledge is usually limited to laboratory experiences that don’t resemble your day-to-day life (unless you sit at a desk and do very boring simple things repeatedly all day. I hope that’s not the case). While that might make it seem like neuroscience research is limited, these constraints are really important for removing error from the data so that researchers can make clear conclusions about the brain activity (in my studies, talking, blinking, looking around the room and zoning out can all cause error in my data). Thankfully, scientists are trying to balance this need for experimental control with the need to study real-world experiences, and are trying to develop new ways to capture brain activity outside of the lab. Like when you’re on a bike.
One type of neuroimaging that has made some great strides to come out of the lab is EEG (electroencephalography, but you may know it as brainwave recordings). Areas of your brain communicate through oscillatory patterns (i.e. waves), and we can learn a lot from these waves about how the brain works1. Some recent research from a lab at the University of Alberta3, led by Dr. Kyle Mathewson, has leveraged advances in technology to record EEG while people cycle around real-world, outdoor environments, fully mobile23. This is a huge leap towards understanding how our brain accomplishes certain real-world tasks, like navigating in a city without a GPS, dodging potholes (#Edmontonroads), and pushing ourselves to shave 10 seconds off of our ride. One interesting finding from those papers is that a particular brain signal associated with attention was smaller while people were biking compared to when they were just sitting in the lab23. While it may seem intuitive, this suggests that our brains deploy attention differently while cycling around outside. Since disorders like Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are related to abnormalities in these attention-related brain signals4, this suggests that activities like cycling may (#veryspeculative) have some therapeutic potential, since they might cause changes in these brain regions. I’ll admit that last bit is pure speculation on my part, but how cool would it be if biking could be a prescription for ADHD?
I bet Branch Out wasn’t aware of that when they started the Bike Tour 8 years ago. But that’s why it's very important to fund research without a direct use. While we now know that biking can change the way the brain deploys attention, this was discovered in the process of validating the EEG system for outdoor recordings. Had these scientists not thought that bicycle EEG recordings would be cool, they would not have found this potential effect of biking. Before this research could possibly be used therapeutically towards people with ADHD, much, much more foundational research is needed to understand how the brain operates differently while cycling. But through foundational (also called basic) research just like that, there have been many surprising medical advances, and we come to better understand how the brain works when we want to start thinking about how to treat it. So next time some science sounds unimportant, ask the scientist why they think it is cool and perhaps your hearing about the foundation for a surprise game-changing discovery. Supporting events like the Branch Out Bike Tour increases the likelihood of these surprise discoveries through our support for funding foundational research in addition to more clearly translatable research.
Ty the Neuro Guy is a cognitive neuroscience graduate student at the University of Utah and the Research Director for Branch Out Neurological Foundation. Inspired by the creative knowledge translation, Ty helps promote scientific literacy through this blog. You can look forward to an article each month helping explain the science of NeuroCAM. If you have any questions or comments about this article or overall blog, feel free to email Ty McKinney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Buzsaki, G. (2006). Rhythms of the Brain. Oxford University Press.
- Scanlon, J.E.M., Townsend, K.A., Cormier, D.L., Kuziek, J.W.P., Mathewson, K.E., (2017). Taking off the training wheels: Measuring auditory P3 during outdoor cycling using an active wet EEG system. Brain Res. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainres.2017.12.010
- Scanlon, J.E.M., Sieben, A.J., Holyk, K.R., Mathewson, K.E., (2017). Your brain on bikes: P3, MMN/N2b, and baseline noise while pedaling a stationary bike. Psychophysiology 54, 927–937. https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.12850
- Sunohara, G. A., Malone, M. A., Rovet, J., Humphries, T., Roberts, W., & Taylor, M. J. (1999). Effect of methylphenidate on attention in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): ERP evidence. Neuropsychopharmacology, 21(2), 218.