Understanding the cerebellum and the critical role it plays in movement
What makes the cerebellum so interesting?
The cerebellum plays a vital role in coordinating movement, maintaining balance, learning new skills, and fine-tuning motor activity. It is because of this “little brain” that activities like riding a bicycle or swimming become second nature to us. Understanding how the cerebellum works and engaging in targeted exercises can have a profound impact on overall brain health and wellbeing. In this article, we explore the key functions of the cerebellum and exercises that can optimize its performance.
The cerebellum is located at the back of the brain, tucked under the cerebral cortex and just behind the brainstem. It accounts for only about 10% of the brain’s total volume, yet the cerebellum contains 80% of the total neurons in the brain. These neurons are highly organized in dense layers of intricate neural circuits.
A massive amount of communication occurs between the cerebellum and other parts of the nervous system. For example, it receives incoming information about voluntary movements from the cerebral cortex, proprioceptive (body awareness) information from skin, muscles, tendons, and joints, as well as information concerning balance from the inner ear.
Why is the cerebellum so important?
Here are some of the reasons why the cerebellum is important:
1. Motor coordination
One of the primary functions of the cerebellum is to coordinate and refine voluntary movements. The cerebellum plays a significant role in this process by fine-tuning the timing and sequencing of muscle contractions as well as coordinating multiple muscle groups to ensure smooth, fluid movements.
Example: As skilled movement professionals, we “train” the cerebellum every time we offer cues or images to help people move with precision.
2. Error correction
The cerebellum compares our intended movements with sensory feedback regarding the actual movement from various parts of the body. It detects any discrepancies between them and sends corrective signals to other brain regions to adjust ongoing motor activity.
Example: When you wobble or lose balance while lying on a foam roller, the cerebellum detects these errors and helps you make the necessary adjustments to remain stable. With repeated practice, your cerebellum becomes more adept at detecting and correcting errors, resulting in more controlled movements and enhanced performance.
3. Motor learning and skill acquisition
The cerebellum is heavily involved in motor learning and the acquisition of new motor skills through practice and repetition. It allows us to learn and automate new movement patterns, enabling them to become more efficient with less cognitive effort required.
Example: As you practice Pilates regularly, your cerebellum stores motor patterns and adjustments needed for various exercises, making it easier for you to perform them with increased proficiency over time. This is why consistent practice is essential in Pilates: The cerebellum continuously adapts and optimizes your movements.
4. Balance and posture
The cerebellum plays an important role in maintaining balance and posture. It integrates input from the vestibular system (inner ear) and other sensory information from the body to adjust the tone and activity in the muscles that maintain postural alignment and equilibrium. The cerebellum also helps to coordinate eye movements and reflexes to facilitate balance, especially during complex tasks or challenging conditions.
5. Creating and storing internal models
In order to fulfill its diversity of roles, the cerebellum builds, stores and updates an internal model of the body’s representation as a reference to plan and calculate the adjustments necessary for smooth, precise and coordinated movement.
Key exercises to train the cerebellum
There are so many ways to challenge the cerebellum, but here is one that is widely accessible and also relatively simple: Start with simple balance exercises such as feet together or heel-to-toe touching with eyes closed. Progress this sequence by standing on unstable surfaces like a balance disc (cushion).
For those with balance challenges, this Balance Exercises video, which is part of the Body Harmonics Neuro Focus video series, is a great place to start to train for balance while stimulating the brain.
Summing up the cerebellum
In summary, the cerebellum acts as a skillful coach behind the scenes, constantly fine-tuning and adapting your movements, making your performance more precise and efficient. It is responsible for balance, posture, control, coordination, and motor learning, all of which are essential for a successful and safe Pilates practice, any type of exercise, or a favourite sport.
You’re invited to become a Motor Control Specialist
“To learn how to optimize the full potential of the cerebellum and the rest of the nervous system, we have created a series of curated courses under the new Body Harmonics Motor Control Specialist Certificate. Please join me and learn how to target the cerebellum every time you teach.”
—Bonnie Jeng, Registered Physiotherapist, Body Harmonics Teacher Trainer
• Bostan, AC & Strick, PL. The basal ganglia and the cerebellum: nodes in an integrated network. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2018 Jun;19(6):338-350.
• Amore, G et al. A Focus on the Cerebellum: From Embryogenesis to an Age-Related Clinical Perspective. Front Syst Neurosci. 2021 Apr 9;15:646052.
• Miall, RC (2013). Cerebellum: Anatomy and Function. In: Pfaff, D.W. (eds) Neuroscience in the 21st Century. Springer, New York, NY.
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