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The Brains of Ultramarathon Runners Offer Insight Into Our Evolutionary Past

A man running down a road toward a mountain scene.
Credit: Andrea Leopardi / Unsplash.
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The brains of ultra marathon runners taking part in gruelling long-distance races may hold clues about our evolutionary past, a new study has found.

Researchers from Loughborough University discovered that athletes who lose weight during these events, which often last days and cover hundreds of miles, show significant adaptation of cognitive function to promote foraging ability.

This may increase ability to find food and increase survival chances during periods of energetic stress.  It is believed that these changes appear as the athletes’ brains remodelled to counteract a negative change in environment. 

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Dr Danny Longman, a Lecturer in Physiology based in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, explained: “Throughout the human evolutionary journey, our ancestors regularly faced food insecurity and energetic stress.

“Here, we worked with ultramarathon runners to study how our brains might adapt during conditions of energetic stress. In runners covering distances of 250km (155 miles), we found a significant increase in performance in cognitive tasks linked to foraging ability. This has clear adaptive value, as an improved ability to find food would increase survival chances.”

The study – delivered in collaboration with Professor Jay Stock (Western University, Canada) and Professor Jonathan Wells (University College London) focused on a cohort of ultra-endurance athletes participating in two 5-day 250km footraces in Jordan and Sri Lanka.

Reference: Longman DP, Wells JCK, Stock JT. Human energetic stress associated with upregulation of spatial cognition. Am J Biol Anthropol. 2023:ajpa.24820. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.24820

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