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Exercise Your Brain (video)
February 18, 2003

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Interviewees: Art Kramer and Stan Colcombe, University of Illinois.

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Produced by Sanjanthi Velu

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We know that exercise can help you feel younger, both physically and mentally.

But as this ScienCentral News video reports now there is evidence that aerobic exercise actually leads to a more youthful brain.

How Exercise Changes Your Brain

The idea that fitness improves mental functioning may not be new, but for the first time neuroscientists have been able to see the effects of aerobic exercise in the aging human brain.

Art Kramer, professor in the neuroscience program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and a faculty member at its Beckman Institute, says earlier animal research has found a number of molecular changes in the brain due to exercise. He says that exercise increases the production of a brain molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which protects nerve cells in the brain and increases the number of nerve cells that are involved in various aspects of memory and cognition.

Kramer also says that the human brain begins to shrink in volume at about age 30, and as a normal process of aging continues to lose volume until the end of life. He and other UIUC colleagues—including Stan Colcombe, a neuroscience fellow at the Beckman Institute—used a scanning technique called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brains of 55 seniors who were over the age of 55.

“The MRI is particularly useful because it allows us to scan very high resolution images of the brain,” says Colcombe, adding that it provides a noninvasive way to study the relationship between aerobic fitness and brain structure.
Reporting in the Journal of Gerontology, the researchers say that aerobic exercise slowed down the loss of brain tissue in seniors. The 55 seniors who volunteered for the study, conducted at Beckman, varied in their physical fitness levels.

According to Kramer: “Those seniors who were more physically fit—which would entail either walking or running or bicycling or swimming—tended to have more brain volume at a given age than individuals who weren’t physically fit, people who chose to do other activities perhaps, but not maintain high levels of aerobic fitness.”

These effects or differences were predominantly seen in three key areas of the brain: the frontal, temporal and parietal regions. Kramer says the frontal regions regulate memory, planning, scheduling, decision-making, etc. The temporal regions, he says, “have a lot to do with what we refer to as memory consolidation, taking things which we’ve learned now, and allowing us to store them as memories that we retrieve later.” And the parietal regions of the brain, “have a lot to do with our ability to get around the world, to navigate, to walk from one point to another, to drive from one point to another.”

Currently, a study of seniors assigned to two fitness groups—an aerobic fitness group and a strength and flexibility group—is ongoing. They have trained the seniors for an hour a day, three times a week, for six months. They will now examine their brain structure, and any changes in brain function, and the efficiency of neuronal circuits that underlie aspects of memory, intention and decision-making. They admit, however, that more research is needed to study how we could relate structural changes in the brain to functional and cognitive changes.

This study was funded by the National Institute on Aging and the New York-based Institute for the Study of Aging. Additional UIUC contributors to the paper were doctoral student Kirk I. Erickson; professor of electrical and computer engineering Andrew G. Webb; professor of psychology Neal Cohen; and professor of kinesiology Edward McAuley. Naftali Raz of Wayne State University in Detroit was also a co-author.

by Sanjanthi Velu

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