Ashley Jackson is passionate about basketball.

“I just love it. Every time I step on the court, I forget about all of my stresses and everything going on and I just have the best time,” says the 18-year-old.

Now her passion is contributing to scientific research. The first year Dalhousie University women’s basketball player is taking part in a study at the school focusing on motor imagery, or the mental rehearsal of movements.

“Ultimately, what we’re doing is we’re comparing the brain activity in athletes imagining themselves perform a basketball free throw to average humans imagining performing a basketball free throw,” says Sarah Kraeutner, one of the study’s co-investigators.

Varsity athletes and non-athletes are hooked up to a brain scanner and asked to imagine themselves performing different movements.

One of those movements is an everyday task -- brushing their teeth. The next is more specific -- a basketball free throw.

“This is the crux of the experiment because we have athletes who play basketball, so who probably practice free throws more often than not, and we also have your average person who doesn’t play basketball who probably, while they might be familiar with a basketball free throw, probably doesn’t practice it every day,” says Kraeutner.

Jackson says she found it difficult to imagine some of the movements, but not the basketball related tasks.

“The free throw, it came naturally,” says Jackson.

Kraeutner says we don’t have to physically practice to master a skill – we can use motor imagery instead.

By studying athletes imagining athletic movements, she is hoping to show motor imagery can be optimized based on someone’s prior physical experience.

The long-term goal is to use the data to individualize therapy for recovering stroke patients.

“For example, if you used to play golf all your life before you had the stroke, instead of asking someone to imagine themselves reaching out and grabbing a coffee cup over and over, let’s ask them to imagine themselves performing a golf swing,” says Kraeutner.

Dr. Shaun Boe is an associate professor at Dalhousie’s School of Physiotherapy. He says, while we’ve gotten better at treating stroke, we still need better ways to help patients function afterward.

“With the kind of crunch in health care we see, there’s not enough therapists, there’s not enough inpatient time and therapy time,” says Dr. Boe. “We’re trying to figure out ways that we can help people recover outside of that therapy time.”

Kraeutner says motor imagery based therapies are an effective solution to this health care crunch. They require less therapist supervision and technology, help avoid physical fatigue and can be done on a patient’s own time.

Kraeutner hopes the next step in her research will directly involve those she’s trying to help.

“Depending on how the results of this study pan out, I’d like to do a study with stroke patients to see if this is actually effective in stroke for rehabilitation.”