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Neural Plasticity
Volume 2017, Article ID 1473783, 10 pages
Research Article

Thalamo-Sensorimotor Functional Connectivity Correlates with World Ranking of Olympic, Elite, and High Performance Athletes

1Brain and Mind Research Institute, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1Z 7K4
2Institute of Mental Health Research, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1Z 7K4
3Swimming Canada, Calgary, AB, Canada T2P 3C5
4Center for Cognition and Brain Disorders, Hangzhou Normal University, Hangzhou 311121, China
5Zhejiang Key Laboratory for Research in Assessment of Cognitive Impairments, Hangzhou Normal University, Hangzhou 310015, China
6Graduate Institute of Humanities in Medicine, Taipei Medical University, Taipei, Taiwan
7Brain and Consciousness Research Center, Taipei Medical University-Shuang Ho Hospital, New Taipei City, Taiwan

Correspondence should be addressed to Zirui Huang; moc.liamg@gnauh.iuriz.rd, Henry (Hap) Davis IV; moc.liamg@sivadpah, and Georg Northoff; ac.layoreht@ffohtron.groeg

Received 5 October 2016; Accepted 11 January 2017; Published 2 February 2017

Academic Editor: Malgorzata Kossut

Copyright © 2017 Zirui Huang 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.


Brain plasticity studies have shown functional reorganization in participants with outstanding motor expertise. Little is known about neural plasticity associated with exceptionally long motor training or of its predictive value for motor performance excellence. The present study utilised resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) in a unique sample of world-class athletes: Olympic, elite, and internationally ranked swimmers (). Their world ranking ranged from 1st to 250th: each had prepared for participation in the Olympic Games. Combining rs-fMRI graph-theoretical and seed-based functional connectivity analyses, it was discovered that the thalamus has its strongest connections with the sensorimotor network in elite swimmers with the highest world rankings (career best rank: 1–35). Strikingly, thalamo-sensorimotor functional connections were highly correlated with the swimmers’ motor performance excellence, that is, accounting for 41% of the individual variance in best world ranking. Our findings shed light on neural correlates of long-term athletic performance involving thalamo-sensorimotor functional circuits.