By Meenu Johnkutty ‘21
New research suggests that the long-term effects of high intensity exercise may prove to be more beneficial than previously thought. Many studies have demonstrated that aerobic exercise improves the structure and function of the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Scientists posit that neurotrophic factors like insulin growth factor (IGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) are directly involved in this improvement. These factors are respectively known for their role in forming new blood vessels and regulating synaptic plasticity, which is essential for optimal levels of memory. As the number of cases of catastrophic neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia continues to rise, a recent McMaster University study analyzes the effects of combined exercise and cognitive training on memory and neurotrophic factors, shedding light on preventive measures that can be taken to decrease one’s chances of developing neurodegenerative diseases.
Ninety-five participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Subjects in the first group participated in a six week long high intensity training session, while subjects completed both the aforementioned training session as well as a cognitive training session; on the other hand, the third group did not participate in either of the two training sessions. The exercise regiment, which lasted six weeks, involved 20 minutes of high intensity aerobic exercise three times a week. The cognitive training session for subjects in the second group involved a computerized version of the Concentration Memory Task, a matching game that involves pairing cards with identical faces. The subjects were tested on their recall of the positions of correct matches immediately following the test and a second time after a five-minute delay. Subjects in all three groups were given blood tests regularly to measure neurotrophic factor levels. Moreover, both the first and second groups completed a Memory Task that measures the memory functioning of a region in the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus.
Although neurotrophic factors increased in all the subjects who participated in the high intensity exercise routine, the researchers found that the Memory Task performance of subjects who had completed both the six-week training session and the cognitive training was superior to that of subjects who had only completed the exercise; thus, cognitive training combined with exercise yielded the best results.
- J. Heisz, et al., The effects of physical exercise and cognitive training on memory and neurotrophic factors. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 29, 1895-1907 (2017). doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01164.
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