You’re not alone if you’ve ever watched a ballet dancer pirouetting down the floor and wondered how he or she stays upright. Researchers at Imperial College London asked the same question. Their findings show dancers’ brains are wired to reduce feelings of dizziness, which could provide insight and eventually relief for vertigo sufferers.
The research team recruited 29 female dancers who had started their training at or before age six and a control group of female rowers with no dancing experience. All of the participants received MRI scans of their brains and took part in an experiment featuring the spinning chair pictured below.
The volunteers sat in a dark room as researchers controlled the chair’s rotation. Participants were asked to turn the handle to match the speed and direction of the spinning chair. Researchers measured the participants’ eye reflexes as well as the amount of time participants continued to turn the handle after the chair stopped spinning.
Dancers recovered from the spinning sensation faster and their eye reflexes returned to normal faster than the rowers’. When researchers looked at the two groups’ MRI results, they found physical differences in the cerebellum and cerebral cortex, areas responsible for motor control and perceptual awareness.
Researchers also noted that in the control group, the perception of spinning closely matched participants’ reflexive eye movements. These two measurements were less closely associated in the dancer group. This finding could have an impact on the way patients experiencing dizziness are tested.
Dr. Barry Seemungal from the Department of Medicine at Imperial says many clinics only measure the reflexes, which means tests come back normal and patients can be told there’s nothing wrong.
“That’s only half the story,” Seemungal says. “You need to look at tests that assess both reflex and sensation.”