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Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 188, Issue 2, pp 317–322 | Cite as

Tactile acuity in experienced Tai Chi practitioners: evidence for use dependent plasticity as an effect of sensory-attentional training

  • Catherine E. Kerr
  • Jessica R. Shaw
  • Rachel H. Wasserman
  • Vanessa W. Chen
  • Alok Kanojia
  • Thomas Bayer
  • John M. Kelley
Research Note

Abstract

The scientific discovery of novel training paradigms has yielded better understanding of basic mechanisms underlying cortical plasticity, learning and development. This study is a first step in evaluating Tai Chi (TC), the Chinese slow-motion meditative exercise, as a training paradigm that, while not engaging in direct tactile stimulus training, elicits enhanced tactile acuity in long-term practitioners. The rationale for this study comes from the fact that, unlike previously studied direct-touch tactile training paradigms, TC practitioners focus specific mental attention on the body’s extremities including the fingertips and hands as they perform their slow routine. To determine whether TC is associated with enhanced tactile acuity, experienced adult TC practitioners were recruited and compared to age–gender matched controls. A blinded assessor used a validated method (Van Boven et al. in Neurology 54(12): 2230–2236, 2000) to compare TC practitioners’ and controls’ ability to discriminate between two different orientations (parallel and horizontal) across different grating widths at the fingertip. Study results showed that TC practitioners’ tactile spatial acuity was superior to that of the matched controls (P < 0.04). There was a trend showing TC may have an enhanced effect on older practitioners (P < 0.066), suggesting that TC may slow age related decline in this measure. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to evaluate a long-term attentional practice’s effects on a perceptual measure. Longitudinal studies are needed to examine whether TC initiates or is merely correlated with perceptual changes and whether it elicits long-term plasticity in primary sensory cortical maps. Further studies should also assess whether related somatosensory attentional practices (such as Yoga, mindfulness meditation and Qigong) achieve similar effects.

Keywords

Touch Tactile acuity Tai Chi Attention Aging 

Notes

Acknowledgments

The lead author (CK) is supported by NIH NCCAM career award K01 AT003459–01. The research was carried out at the Harvard-Thorndike General Clinical Research Center at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which is funded by grant M01 RR01032. The authors are grateful to Christopher Moore for his mentorship and guidance, to Robert Van Boven for his technical assistance with the JVP domes, to Dan Kleiman, Alan Dougall and Marie Helene Jouvin from Brookline Tai Chi for their work in orienting the scientific team to the practice of Tai Chi, to Alfred Luk for his assistance in conducting the research, and to Christina Tognoni for her role in proofreading the manuscript.

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Catherine E. Kerr
    • 1
  • Jessica R. Shaw
    • 1
  • Rachel H. Wasserman
    • 2
  • Vanessa W. Chen
    • 1
  • Alok Kanojia
    • 1
  • Thomas Bayer
    • 1
  • John M. Kelley
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Harvard Osher Research CenterHarvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyThe Pennsylvania State UniversityState CollegeUSA
  3. 3.Endicott CollegeBeverlyUSA
  4. 4.Harvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA

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