Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Fitter bodies = fitter brains. True at all ages?

The results of recent­ly pub­lished stud­ies sug­gest that fit­ter chil­dren also have fit­ter brains. It looks like exer­cis­ing your body pro­motes brain health. Is this true at all ages? How does it work? How much exer­cise should we do?

Phys­i­cal activ­i­ty and brain health in chil­dren

An emerg­ing lit­er­a­ture sug­gests that phys­i­cal activ­i­ty and high lev­els of aer­o­bic fit­ness dur­ing child­hood  may enhance cog­ni­tion. In the 2 most recent stud­ies by Kramer and col­leagues (2010), the cog­ni­tive per­for­mance and the brains of high­er-fit and low­er-fit 9- and 10-year-old chil­dren were exam­ined.

In one study, fit­ter chil­dren did bet­ter than less fit chil­dren in a task requir­ing to ignore irrel­e­vant infor­ma­tion and attend to rel­e­vant cues. Fit­ter chil­dren also had larg­er basal gan­glia (more specif­i­cal­ly dor­sal stria­tum) than less fit chil­dren. The basal gan­glia play a key role in cog­ni­tive con­trol (e.g. prepar­ing, ini­ti­at­ing, inhibit­ing, switch­ing respons­es).

In anoth­er study, fit­ter chil­dren did bet­ter than less fit chil­dren in a task requir­ing to mem­o­rize infor­ma­tion. Fit­ter chil­dren also had larg­er hip­pocampi than less fit chil­dren. The hip­pocam­pus is a struc­ture in the brain that is key to the for­ma­tion of new mem­o­ries.

These stud­ies sug­gest that phys­i­cal fit­ness in chil­dren is relat­ed or asso­ci­at­ed with a) bet­ter cog­ni­tive per­for­mance and b) larg­er brain struc­tures (usu­al­ly the ones respon­si­ble for the per­for­mance dif­fer­ence). The results do not show a cau­sa­tion rela­tion­ship between phys­i­cal fit­ness and cog­ni­tive per­for­mance but as we exam­ine the results com­ing from the adult pop­u­la­tion, it seems like­ly that the causal effect is here.

Phys­i­cal activ­i­ty and brain health in adults

In 2003, Col­combe and Kramer, ana­lyzed the results of 18 sci­en­tific stud­ies pub­lished between 2000 and 2001. These were not cor­re­la­tion stud­ies. Researchers ran­domly assigned par­tic­i­pants to either an aer­o­bic train­ing group or a con­trol group. Cog­ni­tive per­for­mance in both groups was assessed before and after the train­ing peri­od. The results of this meta-analy­sis clear­ly showed that fit­ness train­ing increased cog­ni­tive per­for­mance in healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 80. Giv­en the design of the stud­ies, results sug­gest a causal rela­tion between more phys­i­cal exer­cise and bet­ter cog­ni­tive per­for­mance.

Anoth­er meta-analy­sis pub­lished in 2004 by Heyn and col­leagues showed sim­i­lar ben­e­fi­cial effects of fit­ness train­ing for peo­ple over 65 years old who had cog­ni­tive impair­ment or demen­tia.

In 2006, Col­combe and col­leagues ran­domly assigned 59 old­er adults to either a car­dio­vas­cu­lar exer­cise group, or a non­aer­o­bic exer­cise con­trol group (stretch­ing and ton­ing exer­cise). Par­tic­i­pants exer­cised 3h per week for 6 months. Col­combe et al. scanned the par­tic­i­pants’ brains before and after the train­ing peri­od. After 6 months, the brain vol­ume of the aer­o­bic exer­cis­ing group increased in sev­eral areas com­pared to the oth­er group. Vol­ume increase occurred prin­ci­pally in frontal and tem­po­ral areas of the brain involved in exec­u­tive con­trol and mem­ory process­es.

More recent stud­ies con­firm that aer­o­bic exer­cise is relat­ed to the size of regions respon­si­ble for mem­o­ry process­es (such as the hip­pocam­pus) in elder­ly humans (Erick­son et al., 2009).

How does it work?

As you know neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is the brain’s abil­i­ty to reor­ga­nize itself through­out life. This reor­ga­ni­za­tion occurs through the gen­er­a­tion of new neu­rons (neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis) and new con­nec­tions (synaps­es) between neu­rons. Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is trig­gered by our expe­ri­ences, by what hap­pens in our life.

It seems that phys­i­cal exer­cise trig­gers some neu­ro­plas­tic changes in the brain.

Numer­ous ani­mal stud­ies have shown that phys­i­cal exer­cise has a mul­ti­tude of effects on the brain: neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis, cre­ation of synaps­es, increase in var­i­ous neu­ro­trans­mit­ters and nerve growth fac­tor lev­els, and angio­gen­e­sis (the for­ma­tion of new blood ves­sels).

In human stud­ies,  researchers sus­pect that the increased brain vol­umes observed fol­low­ing fit­ness train­ing may be due to an increased num­ber of blood ves­sels and an increased num­ber of con­nec­tions between neu­rons.

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty slows down as we age but does not dis­ap­pear. Clear­ly the brain can ben­e­fit from phys­i­cal exer­cise at all ages.

The guide­lines

Aer­o­bic exer­cise, at least thir­ty to six­ty min­utes per day, three days a week, has been shown to have a pos­i­tive impact on brain func­tions. As point­ed out in the Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness, the exer­cise does not have to be stren­u­ous: Walk­ing has been shown to have pos­i­tive effects too.

As we all know it is not always easy to inte­grate phys­i­cal exer­cise in our busy lives. Two things may help:

·       Set a goal that you can achieve. Do some­thing you enjoy for even only 15 min­utes a day; you can always add more time and vari­ety lat­er.

·       Sched­ule exer­cise into your dai­ly rou­tine. It will become a habit faster if you do.

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

5 Responses

  1. Ted says:

    Tak­ing a walk out­doors with the fam­i­ly sounds like a good idea. You get the ben­e­fits of exer­cise and it’s also a chance to spend qual­i­ty time with the ones you love.

  2. Ahmed Serag says:

    Awe­some arti­cle, I’m sure if more peo­ple knew how exer­cise affect­ed not only the body, but also the brain, they would par­tic­i­pate. Gonna link to this on my site for sure.

  3. Pascale says:

    Thanks for the com­ments!
    Achiev­ing brain fit­ness requires a holis­tic approach includ­ing social rela­tion­ships, phys­i­cal exer­cise, stress man­age­ment, etc.. A walk out­doors with the fam­i­ly is thus a great idea Ted!

  4. Shabbir says:

    Dear Dr. Pas­cale,

    It was excel­lent research paper. I knew that exer­cise on con­sis­tent basis do help cog­ni­tion how­ev­er did not know that new neu­ron con­nec­tions are formed so rapid­ly and even new blood ves­sels increas­es. Is there any study relat­ed to meditation/yoga and cog­ni­tion.


  5. Pascale says:

    Hi Shab­bir,
    Yes there are sev­er­al stud­ies look­ing at the effect of med­i­ta­tion on brain func­tions, espe­cial­ly atten­tion. You can find many posts on this top­ic in this blog.

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Search in our Archives

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)