ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2021, Vol. 53 ›› Issue (7): 798-806.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2021.00798

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles    

Effects associated with long-term training in sports requiring high levels of strategy on brain white matter structure in expert athletes: A DTI study

QI Yapeng1, WANG Yixuan1, ZHU Hua2, ZHOU Chenglin1, WANG Yingying1()   

  1. 1Department of Psychology, Shanghai University of Sport, Shanghai, 200438, China
    2School of Biological Science and Medical Engineering, Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Beijing 100191, China
  • Received:2020-07-16 Published:2021-07-25 Online:2021-05-24
  • Contact: WANG Yingying
  • Supported by:
    National Natural Science Foundation of China(31900790)


Previous brain imaging studies have shown that the specialized experience achieved by expert sports players after years of training contributes to plasticity in both brain function and structure. However, changes in brain plasticity related to participating in various types of sports, specifically sports that involve higher-level strategies and cognitive function, remain unclear. Table tennis is a sport requiring high levels of strategy. Thus, the present study investigated the white matter structure of the brain in expert table tennis players who had undergone long-term training. Given the accumulating evidence that action processing in the brain occurs along two distinct pathways—dorsal and ventral—we hypothesized that, in addition to changes in the white matter of the dorsal sensorimotor system, the white matter in the ventral pathway linking brain regions related to higher-level cognitive function would differ between expert table tennis athletes and non-athletes.
An investigational group of 31 expert table tennis athletes (20.06 ± 1.69 years of age) and a control group of 28 college students (20.68 ± 1.66 years of age) who had no professional training in table tennis were recruited for the study. The table tennis athletes were members of university teams, and each athlete had more than 7 years of table tennis training. Diffusion tensor imaging techniques were used to compare white matter microstructure properties of the brain between expert athletes and non-athletes. Statistical analyses were performed using independent t-tests. Further analysis was conducted for the expert athlete group to assess whether any correlation existed between fractional anisotropy (FA) values and training time.
Consistent with our hypothesis, the white matter microstructure properties of both the dorsal and ventral pathways in expert table tennis athletes significantly differed from those in non-athletes. Specifically, FA values in the bilateral corticospinal fibers, which mainly connect brain regions in the dorsal sensorimotor system, were higher in experts than in non-athletes. Compared with non-athletes, expert athletes also had higher FA values in the left hemisphere inferior longitudinal fasciculus (ILF) and bilateral inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus (IFOF) of the ventral pathway, which are involved in higher-level cognitive processing, such as semantic processing or thinking. By contrast, no white matter region showed a higher FA value in non-athletes than in expert athletes, and no region was found with axial diffusivity difference between the groups. Additionally, radial diffusivity was lower in the left hemisphere superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF) and bilateral IFOF in experts than in non-athletes. Correlation analysis of the expert group showed significant positive correlations between training time and FA values in both the left hemisphere SLF in the ventral pathway and bilateral corticospinal fibers in the dorsal pathway. Taken together, these findings suggest that enhanced structural integrity of the white matter in both the dorsal and ventral pathways is associated with long-term, expert table tennis training. The observed structural plasticity is conducive to promoting cognitive processing of concrete sensorimotor and abstract information, which would enable expert athletes to excel at sports requiring a high level of strategy.

Key words: brain structural plasticity, high-level strategy sports, table tennis athlete, diffusion tensor imaging