The hardest step in ballet is called a fouetté – a turn on tip-toe propelled by a whipping motion of the leg. Ballerinas practise for thousands of hours to perfect the movement until it seems easy and seamless. Practice makes perfect because repetition of movement switches on genes that build new neural pathways in the cerebellum, a region of the brain that contains half of the brain’s neurons and controls complex movements. Researchers studying the cerebellum in rats (a cross-section is shown) discovered that the process of switching genes on and off in response to external stimuli is orchestrated by a master gene called SNF2H. They found that rats with the gene inactivated had a cerebellum one third of the normal size and struggled to coordinate movement and find balance, let alone do fouettés. This ability of the environment to modify one’s genetic profile is known as epigenetics.
Written by Tristan Farrow
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