A new study shows that one year of moderate physical exercise can increase the size of the brain's hippocampus in older adults, leading to an improvement in spatial memory.
The project - conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh,
University of Illinois, Rice University, and Ohio State University - is
considered the first study of its kind focusing on older adults who are
already experiencing atrophy of the hippocampus, the brain structure
involved in all forms of memory formation. The study, funded through the
National Institute on Aging, appears in the Jan. 31 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The scientists recruited 120 sedentary older people without dementia
and randomly placed them in one of two groups - those who began an
exercise regimen of walking around a track for 40 minutes a day, three
days a week, or those limited to stretching and toning exercises.
Magnetic resonance images were collected before the intervention, after
six months, and at the end of the one-year study.
The aerobic exercise group demonstrated an increase in volume of the
left and right hippocampus of 2.12 percent and 1.97 percent,
respectively. The same regions of the brain in those who did stretching
exercises decreased in volume by 1.40 and 1.43 percent, respectively.
Spatial memory tests were conducted for all participants at the three
intervals. Those in the aerobic exercise group showed improved memory
function, when measured against their performance at the start of the
study, an improvement associated with the increased size of the
hippocampus. The authors also examined several biomarkers associated
with brain health, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a
small molecule that is involved in learning and memory. They found that
the increases in hippocampal size were associated with increased
amounts of BDNF.
"We think of the atrophy of the hippocampus in later life as almost
inevitable," said Kirk Erickson, professor of psychology at the
University of Pittsburgh and the paper's lead author. "But we've shown
that even moderate exercise for one year can increase the size of that
structure. The brain at that stage remains modifiable."
"The results of our study are particularly interesting in that they
suggest that even modest amounts of exercise by sedentary older adults
can lead to substantial improvements in memory and brain health," said
Art Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute at the University of
Illinois and the senior author.
"Such improvements have important implications for the health of our
citizens and the expanding population of older adults worldwide."
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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