Exercise improves memory and boosts blood flow to brain


Exercise improves memory and boosts blood flow to brain


There is much evidence suggesting that exercise improves brain health, and some even suggests that fitness can improve memory. New research from UT Southwestern has examined what happens during exercise to cause the benefits.

The researchers documented changes in the brain after one year of aerobic workouts, and discovered that exercise boosts blood flow into two regions of the brain which are associated with memory. The study also showed that this increased blood flow could help older people with memory issues improve cognition. The scientists believe that this could guide future Alzheimer’s disease research.

"Perhaps we can one day develop a drug or procedure that safely targets blood flow into these brain regions," says Binu Thomas, Ph.D., a UT Southwestern senior research scientist in neuroimaging. "But we're just getting started with exploring the right combination of strategies to help prevent or delay symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. There's much more to understand about the brain and aging."


Blood flow and memory

Published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the study noted changes in long-term memory and cerebral blood flow in 30 participants. Each of the participants were aged 60 or older, and all had memory problems. Half of the participants underwent 12 months of aerobic exercise training, and the other half did stretching exercises.

Within the exercise group, the participants demonstrated a 47% improvement in memory scores after one year, whereas the stretching group showed minimal changes. Brain imaging of the exercise group, which were taken while the participants were at rest at the beginning and end of the study, revealed increased blood flow to the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus – both regions of the brain that have significant roles in memory function.

Previous studies have demonstrated that exercise programs benefit cognitively normal adults, but this new research is significant as it focuses on older adults at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

"We've shown that even when your memory starts to fade, you can still do something about it by adding aerobic exercise to your lifestyle," Thomas says.


Mounting evidence

Many existing studies have attempted to greater understand the molecular genesis of Alzheimer’s, with emphasis on early detection; but research has not yet yielded any proven treatments to make an early diagnosis actionable for patients.

The authors of the most recent study are among many teams attempting to identify whether exercise may be the first intervention – there is increasing evidence that it could play at least a small role in delaying or reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

A study from 2018 demonstrated that people with lower fitness levels experienced faster deterioration of white matter in the brain when compared to people with higher fitness levels, and a study published in 2019 showed exercise is correlated with slower deterioration of the hippocampus.

Thomas has noted that blood flow may be able to one day be used in combination with other strategies in order to preserve brain function in people with mild cognitive impairment.

"Cerebral blood flow is a part of the puzzle, and we need to continue piecing it together," Thomas says. "But we've seen enough data to know that starting a fitness program can have lifelong benefits for our brains as well as our hearts."


Binu P. Thomas, Takashi Tarumi, Min Sheng, Benjamin Tseng, Kyle B. Womack, C. Munro Cullum, Bart Rypma, Rong Zhang, Hanzhang Lu. Brain Perfusion Change in Patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment After 12 Months of Aerobic Exercise TrainingJournal of Alzheimer's Disease, 2020; 75 (2): 617 DOI: 10.3233/JAD-190977

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