Study examines relationships amongst exercise, technology and cognition

By Aristides Theodoropoulos, Technograph Writer

The department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University is currently studying the connections between the brain and the body. In particular, Dr. Sean Mullen and his team are at the forefront of this research. Mullen’s team has been funded by the National Institutes of Health since 2012.

The staff of the Exercise, Technology & Cognition laboratory is currently composed of six full-time doctoral students, interns from other institutions, one or two hourly paid research coordinators and 20-30 undergraduates working towards academic credits.

The overarching goal that Mullen and his team are striving to accomplish is to reach an understanding of  “the mechanisms of the reciprocal relationship between exercise and cognitive functioning,” said Adam Taggart, a doctoral student currently working in Mullen’s lab.

One of the studies is named BRAIN, which is a pilot study that has investigated the effects of a multi-modal aerobic exercise and cognitive training regimen, as opposed to only one or the other.

The study included a group of adults experiencing post-concussive symptoms. Mullen and his team agree that with brain injuries, symptoms typically persist for months. It has been thought that resting the mind should be the answer to brain injury, however, recent evidence suggests taking a more physical approach rather than a mostly mental one.

The BRAIN study thus incorporates both a focus on the mind and body, which has demonstrated “some advantages over aerobic exercise alone,” Taggart said.

Another study conducted by Mullen and his team focuses on breast cancer survivors who are frequently affected by chronic, cancer-related fatigue. Unlike the BRAIN study, RACER was designed to test what the outcomes would be if mindful relaxation techniques, delivered via an app and cycling, were combined.

Similarly, RACER has produced results that lead researchers to believe there are advantages to the coupling of mind and body regimens. Although both of these studies were dissertation studies, Mullen and his colleagues believe “the results certainly warrant further investigation” said Taggart.

What can current exercise enthusiasts do to optimize the quality of their work-outs? Mullen and his colleagues agree that many tend to fall into ruts with the progress of their exercise. Furthermore, they assert that frustration can manifest in those who don’t visibly experience physiological change, such as increased strength, muscle growth and improved endurance.

It’s important for those who routinely go to the gym to alter and tweak the type of exercises performed, so that boredom and a lack of motivation do not ensue. Not only are physical improvements a desire for people, such as those aforementioned, but so are the cognitive benefits of exercise. Mullen’s team is continuously investigating the relationships between mental and physical states.

A unique aspect of this laboratory is the team’s curiosity to understand what types of technologies should be a part of the exercise, and how it can be a factor in affecting specific areas of cognition.  Technologies are constantly being manufactured to assist in scientific research. One of the ETC lab’s goals is to create new technologies to assess cognitive and motor skills, Taggart said, as well as to be able to train cognitive and motor skills as well.

Prototypes have been developed by the ETC lab in order to assess and train agility. The lab has compared these prototypes to the video game Dance Dance Revolution but on a more complex scale. Assessments via iPad of cognitive functioning and Unity 3D-powered exergames (or 3D-exercise games) are also types of technology that the lab is incorporating to better understand the inner and outer workings of the body and mind, as well as the connection between the two.

Taggart said Dr. Mullen and his entire ETC laboratory “aim to advance science and practice” by developing and testing their own technological equipment. Validating consumer-grade apps and wearables is yet another goal of the ETC team. Apple watches, Fitbits and other fitness & health applications have become a part of many people’s daily lives as wellness practices continue to advance on a global scale.

The Exercise, Technology & Cognition Laboratory at the University appears to be working hard to provide our society with information on how the human body and mind function simultaneously, with the end goal of improving our lifestyles. Ultimately, the quality of our lives can depend and be drastically improved by the work of such research.

Ari is a senior in LAS.

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