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Brain connectivity is altered by extreme physical exercise during non-REM sleep and wakefulness: indications from EEG and fMRI studies

D Menicucci, C Gentili, A Piarulli, M Laurino, S Pellegrini, F Mastorci, R Bedini, D Montanaro, L Sebastiani, A Gemignani


Brain connectivity is associated to behavioral states (e.g. wake, sleep) and modified by physical activity although, to date, it is not clear which components (e.g. hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis hormones, cytokines) associated to the exercise are involved. In this pilot study, we used extreme exercise (UltraTriathlon) as a model to investigate physical-activity-related changes of brain connectivity. We studied post-race brain synchronization during wakefulness and sleep as well as possible correlations between exercise-related cytokines/hormones and synchronization features. For wakefulness, global synchronization was evaluated by estimating from fMRI data (12 athletes) the brain global connectivity (GC). GC increased in several brain regions, mainly related to sensory-motor activity, emotional modulation and response to stress that may foster rapid exchange of information across regions, and reflect post-race internally-focused mental activity or disengagement from previous motor programs. No significant correlations between cytokines/hormones and GC were found. For sleep (8 athletes), synchronization was evaluated by estimating the local-(cortical) and global-related (thalamo- cortical) EEG features associated to the phenomenon of Sleep Slow Oscillations (SSO) of NREM sleep. Results showed that: power of fast rhythms in the baseline preceding the SSO increased in midline and parietal regions; amplitude and duration of SSOs increased, mainly in posterior areas; sigma modulation in the SSO up state decreased. In the post race, IL-10 positively correlated with fast rhythms baseline, SSO rate and positive slope; IL-1ra and cortisol inversely correlated with SSO duration; TNF-α and C-reactive protein positively correlated with fast rhythm modulation in the SSO up state. Sleep results suggest that: arousal during sleep, estimated by baseline fast rhythms, is increased; SSO may be sustained by cortical excitability, linked to anti-inflammatory markers (IL-10); thalamo-cortical entrainment, (sigma modulation), is impaired in athletes with higher inflammatory markers.


Physical exercise; Sleep slow oscillations; Global connectivity; Cytokines; Synchronization; Cerebral excitability; Humans


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