Study: Aerobic exercise stimulates cognitive functions

Tom Freyer, a junior in LAS, walks north on Forth Street Tuesday afternoon, January 23, 2007. A study conducted by the University of Illinois has shown that walking increases brain volume and can also stimulate cognitive functions. Joseph Lamberson

Brad Vest

Tom Freyer, a junior in LAS, walks north on Forth Street Tuesday afternoon, January 23, 2007. A study conducted by the University of Illinois has shown that walking increases brain volume and can also stimulate cognitive functions. Joseph Lamberson

By Lisa Chung

In a study conducted at the University, researchers found that habitual aerobic exercise can increase brain volume.

Arthur Kramer, professor of psychology and one of the 10 individuals who conducted the study, found that six months of walking increased brain volume, efficiency, and also improved several cognitive functions in the inactive, elder participants.

Kramer split 60 participants into two groups, where half took part in aerobic exercise and the other half took part in a non-aerobic stretching and toning exercise. The study focused on the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the brains of the participants who had been exercising three days a week for six months. Each week exercises gradually increased in intensity.

After six months, the MRI images from before and after the study were compared. The MRI images taken of the group that participated in aerobic exercise for six months showed a more significant change in brain volume than those of the group that participated in non-aerobic exercises.

There were increases in gray and white matter in the brain, Kramer said. Gray matter is composed of neurons and mainly responsible for information processing. White matter increases the rate of transmission in nerve impulses.

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    Also, they found volume increases in both the prefrontal and temporal region, Kramer said.

    Monica Fabiani, professor of psychology who specializes in brain and cognition, said the frontal and temporal regions are vulnerable to aging. These regions will show more loss in a physically unfit person as the brain ages, she said.

    “Having a life-long habit of exercise can only do good for the mind and body,” Fabiani said.

    Based on other studies, the increases in brain volume have shown heightened cognitive processes, such as decision-making, memory and attention, Kramer said.

    The study also found increases in the plasticity of brains. Plasticity, or flexibility, enables the brain to rearrange neural pathways in order to make room for new information and experiences. The maximum amount of plasticity change was around a 2 percent growth, meaning the brain regressed to function at a level about two to three years younger.

    Fabiani said that as the brain ages, “the structure tends to diminish, so there is less tissue. When you are more physically active, the loss is slowed down.”

    Losses in brain tissue from aging happens for a number of reasons, including a reduction in chemicals that help transmission and a decrease in the size of neurons, Kramer said.

    Charles Hillman, associate professor of kinesiology and community health, who studies the relationship between fitness and cognition, said there may be a connection between the state of the brain and physical activity.

    So, the brain’s health can be related to how physically active a person is, according to Hillman.

    He added that, “People should try, wherever they can, to take the stairs instead of the elevators.”