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That shrinking feeling: house prices & the brain matters

by Marquette Turner

in Money & Business, News & Views, Real Estate Radar

As recently reported by the ABC following an imaging study, stress from high house prices and sporting failures is shrinking Sydneysiders’ brains, compared to those of their counterparts in Melbourne.

The study, published in the journal Australasian Psychiatry, is the first scientific study into the long-standing rivalry between Australia’s most populous cities.

A team of neuropsychiatrists at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, scanned the brains of 20 Sydneysiders and 20 Melburnians to look for differences in brain structure.

In their study, the team leader Dr Velakoulis and his team used magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to study the thickness of grey matter, or ‘cortical thickness’, of the anterior cingulate cortex.

Brains This is a part of the brain that helps control decision-making and moods.

Without knowing which city’s residents they were imaging at the time, the researchers found that residents of Melbourne had a statistically thicker layer of grey matter.

The researchers corrected for age, as the older you get the thinner your grey matter is likely to be. Additionally the researchers also controlled for intracranial volume, since the taller someone is the bigger their overall brain will be,yet still the thickness was still thicker in Melbourne than in Sydney,” says Velakoulis.

FACT: Stress shrinks brains

The researchers wanted to test the theory that the differences between Sydney and Melbourne brains were from stress, which evidence suggests can cause a thinning of the grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex.

They first looked at the influence of financial stress by calculating the median house prices in each city and correlating this with cortical thickness. The median property price in Melbourne in 2005 was A$347,000. But it was A$517,000 in Sydney.

The team concluded that the greater the median house price the less the cortical thickness.

Correlations: Sporting and academic success

The researchers also looked at how sporting and academic success differed between Sydney and Melbourne.

They found that since 1960, Melbourne has had 37 Australian Football League (AFL) premierships whereas Sydney only had one, in 2005.

This was when the Sydney Swans defeated the West Coast Eagles, says Velakoulis, who declares a possible conflict of interest as a Sydney Swans supporter.

Melbourne also has had more National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grants awarded to its researchers than Sydney, the researchers found.

The higher house prices and relatively poor sporting and academic performance all adds up to stress that is likely to be responsible for the thinning grey matter in Sydney brains, they say.

Competing hypotheses

The Marquette Turner team, however, query such conclusions, particularly given the only sporting focus being on AFL – there are not only many other football codes such as League and Union (both which would give negative support to Melbourne), there are numerous other team sports. Additionally, what of the individual sports such as Tennis, Horse Racing, Golf etc.

We suggest analysis could go one step further and look at those Melbourne and Sydney siders that are both academics AND sports players.

We could also look at this analysis from a different angle and suggest that as the brain matures it gets rid of unnecessary connections and becomes more efficient. It could be that Sydneysiders are much more mature and refined and, as one member of the team suggests (a Sydney-sider no less!) they have gotten rid of unnecessary brain connections but therefore have a thinner but more efficient cortex.

What happens next?
The team are hoping to further test this hypothesis with money from the AFL.

Marquette Turner question whether not only this continued focus on AFL may scew further results, but we also wonder whether the fact that Melbourne house prices are catching up to Sydney’s could in fact be leading to a shrinkage in Melburnian brains.

And finally, Marquette Turner are quietly breathing a sigh of relief given that our team covers both Sydney and Melbourne. 🙂

Simon Turner

PS. For those sceptical amongst you, the team consistsed of 6 Melburnians and a single Sydneysider.

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