Fitness Health

Mind over matter: OU research finds link between brain function and muscle strength

By Kelly Fisher, staff writer

They say you can do anything if you put your mind to it.

While that might not necessarily be the case for everything, a research team from Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine has found some validity in that.

According to the study, published in the Journal of Neurophysiology on Oct. 1, 2014 and funded by the National Institute of Health, there is a link between brain function and muscle strength when using mental imagery to prevent muscles from growing weaker when they are not being used for a significant period of time.

Brian Clark, professor of physiology and neuroscience in Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and executive director of the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI), led the study, testing the hypothesis that the nervous system — particularly the cortex — plays an important role in muscle strength.

The study was chosen as one to run with the APSselect, which is a system run by the American Physiological Society for which only a few significant, original studies are showcased each month to highlight some of the best science research being published. This one was awarded a spot on the list in January.

All of Clark’s research focuses on underlying muscle performance as it relates to neurological disorders.

He said he “always had a strong interest to better understand mind-body experience,” adding that it’s been known for approximately 20 years that people can use mental imagery to enhance muscle function, and it has been utilized in a clinical setting particularly within the past decade. However, he believes that there is still progress to be made.

Though similar studies have looked at whether imagery could be utilized before, they never found statistically significant effects, according to Clark.

This particular study is a breakthrough for those in neurorehabilitation, the process of the recovery of the nervous system after something such as a stroke. It will also assist physical therapy patients and athletes, among others.

The biggest impact, however, relates to aging.

“There’s a rapid increase in the number of seniors,” Clark said. “We have a large number of individuals that are rapidly aging, and as we age we lose muscle strength, keeps people from living independently… What this data suggests is the weakness we observe is in the nervous system, (and) has nothing to do with the muscle itself.”

The bottom line, he said, is that even if an individual keeps his or her muscles healthy throughout the aging process, they will still be subject to physical impairment because of neurological pathways.

To prove this, researchers examined one group of healthy people between the ages of 18 and 30 whose wrists were immobilized for four weeks to become weaker and another ground that underwent four weeks of immobilization while performing mental imagery exercises (imagining strong muscle contractions) five days per week, along with a control group (a group of people who were unchanged).

In each of the two groups that endured immobilization, researchers used their non-dominant wrists.

The research team measured wrist flexor strength in each participant before, immediately after and one week after immobilization with an electromyogram (EMG). Those who utilized Clark’s mental imagery training techniques had reduced their loss of strength by approximately 50 percent, according to the study.

Clark stressed that the size of a muscle is not related to the strength of the muscle; muscle strength refers to the amount of force one can produce in a muscle when asked to do so.

So how can the brain control strength when the strength comes from the muscle?

Clark said that a puppet is an accurate analogy for the process: the muscle is the puppet and the brain is the string of the nervous system that allows it to function.

“Not only will you be able to get the benefit activating the brain,” he said, “but you’ll also get the muscle activated for someone that is unable to exercise.”


Kelly is a junior who cannot believe she is already more than halfway done with her time in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. Aside from College Green, she spends her time writing for OU’s College of Health Sciences and Professions and working on the Young African Leaders Initiative through the Institute for International Journalism…

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