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Recent studies indicate that the brain's insular cortex may help a sprinter drive his body forward just a little more efficiently than his competitors. (Matthias Kulka / Corbis)

A Single Brain Structure May Give Winners That Extra Physical Edge

An extraordinary insula helps elite athletes better anticipate their body's upcoming feelings, improving their physical reactions

All elite athletes train hard, possess great skills and stay mentally sharp during competition. But what separates a gold medalist from an equally dedicated athlete who comes in 10th place? A small structure deep in the brain may give winners an extra edge.

Recent studies indicate that the brain's insular cortex may help a sprinter drive his body forward just a little more efficiently than his competitors. This region may prepare a boxer to better fend off a punch his opponent is beginning to throw as well as assist a diver as she calculates her spinning body's position so she hits the water with barely a splash. The insula, as it is commonly called, may help a marksman retain a sharp focus on the bull's-eye as his finger pulls back on the trigger and help a basketball player at the free-throw line block out the distracting screams and arm-waving of fans seated behind the backboard.

The insula does all this by anticipating an athlete's future feelings, according to a new theory. Researchers at the OptiBrain Center, a consortium based at the University of California, San Diego, and the Naval Health Research Center, suggest that an athlete possesses a hyper-attuned insula that can generate strikingly accurate predictions of how the body will feel in the next moment. That model of the body's future condition instructs other brain areas to initiate actions that are more tailored to coming demands than those of also-rans and couch potatoes.

This heightened awareness could allow Olympians to activate their muscles more resourcefully to swim faster, run farther and leap higher than mere mortals. In experiments published in 2012, brain scans of elite athletes appeared to differ most dramatically from ordinary subjects in the functioning of their insulas. Emerging evidence now also suggests that this brain area can be trained using a meditation technique called mindfulness—good news for Olympians and weekend warriors alike.

Peak performance

Stripped of the cheering fans, the play-by-play commentary and all the trappings of wealth and fame, professional sports reduce to a simple concept: The athletes who enthrall us are experts at meeting specific physical goals. They execute corporeal feats smoothly, without wasting a single drop of sweat.

Such performance is a full-brain phenomenon. The motor cortex and memory systems, for example, encode years of practice. Nerve fibers become ensconced in extra layers of a protective sheath that speeds up communication between neurons, producing lightning-fast reflexes. Understanding the brain at its athletic best is the goal of psychiatrist Martin Paulus and his colleagues at the OptiBrain Center. They propose that the insula may serve as the critical hub that merges high-level cognition with a measure of the body's state, to insure proper functioning of the muscles and bones that throw javelins and land twirling dismounts from the high bar. "The key idea we're after is how somebody responds when they get a cue that predicts something bad will happen," Paulus says. "The folks that are performing more optimally are the ones who are able to use that anticipatory cue to adjust themselves and return to equilibrium."

Slightly larger than a kumquat, the insula is part of the cerebral cortex, the thick folds of gray tissue that form the brain's outer layer. The densely rippled structure sits on the inside of the cortical mantle, resembling a tiny Japanese fan tucked neatly into the brain's interior. It is commonly thought of as the seat of interoception, or the sense of your body's internal state.

The insula generates this sense by maintaining a map of all your far-flung organs and tissues. Certain neurons in the insula respond to rumblings in the intestines, for example, whereas others fire to reflect a toothache. To manage the influx of messages bombarding it from throughout the body, the insula collaborates closely with the anterior cingulate cortex, an area crucial for decision-making, to evaluate and prioritize those stimuli. This raw representation of bodily signals has been hypothesized for more than a century to be the origin of emotions.

At first glance, pegging the insula as critical to anything can seem almost meaningless. It has been implicated in functions as diverse as decision-making, anticipation, timekeeping, singing, addiction, speech, even consciousness. The insula and the anterior cingulate cortex are the most commonly activated regions in brain-imaging experiments, according to a 2011 study, making it all the more difficult to discern their core functions.

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