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Neural Plasticity
Volume 2016 (2016), Article ID 6817397, 17 pages
Research Article

Differences in Cortical Representation and Structural Connectivity of Hands and Feet between Professional Handball Players and Ballet Dancers

Division Neuropsychology, Department of Psychology, University of Zurich, 8050 Zurich, Switzerland

Received 17 January 2016; Revised 19 March 2016; Accepted 13 April 2016

Academic Editor: Claudia Voelcker-Rehage

Copyright © 2016 Jessica Meier et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


It is known that intensive training and expertise are associated with functional and structural neuroadaptations. Most studies, however, compared experts with nonexperts; hence it is, specifically for sports, unclear whether the neuroplastic adaptations reported are sport-specific or sport-general. Here we aimed at investigating sport-specific adaptations in professional handball players and ballet dancers by focusing on the primary motor and somatosensory grey matter (GM) representation of hands and feet using voxel-based morphometry as well as on fractional anisotropy (FA) of the corticospinal tract by means of diffusion tensor imaging-based fibre tractography. As predicted, GM volume was increased in hand areas of handball players, whereas ballet dancers showed increased GM volume in foot areas. Compared to handball players, ballet dancers showed decreased FA in both fibres connecting the foot and hand areas, but they showed lower FA in fibres connecting the foot compared to their hand areas, whereas handball players showed lower FA in fibres connecting the hand compared to their foot areas. Our results suggest that structural adaptations are sport-specific and are manifested in brain regions associated with the neural processing of sport-specific skills. We believe this enriches the plasticity research in general and extends our knowledge of sport expertise in particular.