Brain plasticity studies have shown functional reorganization in participants with outstanding motor expertise. Little is known about neural plasticity associated with exceptionally long motor training or of its predictive value for motor performance excellence. The present study utilised resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) in a unique sample of world-class athletes: Olympic, elite, and internationally ranked swimmers (n=30). Their world ranking ranged from 1st to 250th: each had prepared for participation in the Olympic Games. Combining rs-fMRI graph-theoretical and seed-based functional connectivity analyses, it was discovered that the thalamus has its strongest connections with the sensorimotor network in elite swimmers with the highest world rankings (career best rank: 1-35). Strikingly, thalamo-sensorimotor functional connections were highly correlated with the swimmers' motor performance excellence, that is, accounting for 41% of the individual variance in best world ranking. Our findings shed light on neural correlates of long-term athletic performance involving thalamo-sensorimotor functional circuits.
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