GRADUATE STUDENT PROFILE
One-sided training study looks at brain, muscle link
By Jim Snyder
Jon Farthing: hometown boy, loyal U of S grad, assistant professor in Kinesiology, soon-to-be PhD … and future hero? Quite possibly. The results of Farthing’s doctoral research could very well end up helping people recover faster and more fully from a variety of injuries.
Swift Current-born and Saskatoon-raised, Farthing is right where he always knew he wanted to be. “I always wanted to do graduate work,” he says, “but it was only when I got to Grad Studies that I really started to enjoy the idea of being here.”
Farthing knows he’s lucky in his university experience. The son of long-time St. Thomas More College professor Gerry Farthing, Jon has spent his entire academic career at the U of S, earning his B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Kinesiology. He will defend his PhD dissertation on Nervous System Adaptations in two weeks, and he couldn’t be more thrilled.
“It’s amazing what the human body can do, and what it is capable of,” he says. “I am really excited about the results of my work.”
Farthing’s dissertation project, which grew out of his master’s thesis, studies the differences in oxygen utilization in the brain as an indicator of brain activation, after strengthening only one hand. It sounds complicated – and it is – but the idea of the tests can be explained quite simply: “The subject strength-trains only one hand, but I have found that the muscles on the untrained hand and arm actually seem to retain a sort of memory of what the trained muscles experienced. In one study, there was 45-per-cent strength increase on the trained muscles and 47-per-cent on the untrained.”
Farthing continues, “The study has also shown that this ‘cross-education’ effect is related to dominant-hand training. There will be an increase in strength in both limbs if the dominant hand is trained, but only in the non-dominant if that one is trained. Of course, there is a gain in muscle size only on the trained side.”
The extent of Farthing’s study was greatly helped by some good old-fashioned interdisciplinary help from the Psychology Department, especially from Associate Professors Ron Borowsky and Gord Sarty.
“I was able to use fMRI – Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging– to view activation patterns in the brain. That really helped us to understand exactly what the brain is doing, and what type of brain activity occurs in both sides of the brain following strength training of only one limb.”
College of Kinesiology leaders have so much faith in Farthing and his study that they hired him to faculty last July 1, well before his PhD defense. “Oh, they’re going to be expecting a lot more research!” he joked. “But I see a lot of directions that this work can go. One thing I would like to do is study the effect of training on someone who has an immobilized arm, say in a cast. That way we can see if there is a benefit of this type of crossover for the immobilized limb.”
In addition, Farthing would like to extend his study to the lower extremities of the body. “I would next like to see what type of dominant limb effects the leg muscles have. I expect the results to be somewhat different, because we do not have overly dominant legs, like we do for hands. In the same way, I would like to see if someone with equally dominant hands experiences crossover of strength in both arms.”
Farthing sees a wide range of possible applications for his study: “Once we know more about training and communication between limbs, we could help speed the recovery of many types of injuries, including sports injuries.”
His ultimate goal is to help stroke victims rehabilitate their damaged limbs through the training of their healthy ones. “There is a lot of work to go before we are ready to help stroke victims,” Farthing admits. “But a lot of the research is in place, and I am excited to continue this study after I receive my PhD.”