A new study has found a new link between regular aerobic exercise and improved cognitive function in brain regions associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
By Nick Lavars
Previous research has shown us how regular exercise can be beneficial for cognitive function and help stave off the brain degeneration associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s, but scientists continue to learn more about the mechanisms at play. The latest discovery in this area comes courtesy of researchers from the University of Wisconsin (UW), who have published a new study describing a relationship between regular aerobic exercise and a reduced vulnerability to Alzheimer’s among high-risk adults.
More and more research is establishing stronger and stronger links between exercise and the prevention or slowing of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Last September, one study found that a regime of regular aerobic exercise could slow the degeneration of the hippocampus, while another from early in 2019 found that a hormone released during exercise can improve brain plasticity and memory.
For the new study, the UW researchers enlisted 23 subjects, with the participants all cognitively healthy young adults but with a heightened risk of Alzheimer’s due to family history and genetics. All lived what the researchers describe as a sedentary lifestyle and were first put through examinations to assess their cardiorespiratory fitness, cognitive function, typical daily physical activity, and brain glucose metabolism, which is considered a measure of neuronal health.
From there, half of the subjects were given information about how to lead a more active lifestyle, but were then left to their own devices. The other half of the group was given a personal trainer and put through a treadmill training program described as “moderate intensity,” involving three sessions a week across 26 weeks.
Unsurprisingly, the active group demonstrated improved cardio fitness and took on less sedentary lifestyles once the training program had finished. But in addition, they scored higher on cognitive tests of executive functioning, which is the capacity of the brain to plan, pay attention, remember instructions and multitask. Executive function is known to deteriorate during the onset of Alzheimer’s.
“This study is a significant step toward developing an exercise prescription that protects the brain against AD, even among people who were previously sedentary,” explains lead investigator Ozioma C. Okonkwo.
In addition to this improved executive function, brain scans also revealed some marked differences in brain glucose metabolism in the posterior cingulate cortex, a region again linked with Alzheimer’s.
“This research shows that a lifestyle behavior – regular aerobic exercise – can potentially enhance brain and cognitive functions that are particularly sensitive to the disease,” says Okonkwo. “The findings are especially relevant to individuals who are at a higher risk due to family history or genetic predisposition.”
With the sample size on the small side, the researchers are now working towards larger studies with more subjects to see if their findings can be replicated.
The research was published in the journal Brain Plasticity.