Exercise may protect brain regions that are sensitive to neurodegeneration

Physical activity may help to protect brain regions that are sensitive to neurodegeneration, according to new research in NeuroImage: Clinical that examined cognitive decline in the elderly.

“Physical activity is a promising non-pharmacological treatment candidate in cognitive decline such as dementia, which is also easy to apply with low risk of side-effects,” said study authors Kathrin Reetz and Alexa Haeger of RWTH Aachen University and the JARA-BRAIN Institute Molecular Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

“However, for an evaluation of this treatment option, its direct impact on brain structure and integrity needs to be understood to find the optimal form of physical activity

“The aim of this review was therefore to investigate cerebral changes induced by physical activity and fitness during cognitive decline, detected via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Intervention studies as well as observational studies with fitness assessment and questionnaires about participants’ physical activity were included.”

The researchers analyzed 23 previous MRI studies that examined how physical activity was linked to mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. The studies included a total of 2,268 subjects.

Exercise was found to impact frontal, temporal and parietal brain regions, such as the hippocampal/parahippocampal region, precuneus, anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex.

“Physical activity and fitness reflect on brain structure in cognitive decline. Especially brain regions which are affected by neurodegeneration seem to be responsive to exercise and fitness,” Reetz and Haeger told PsyPost.

“Interpretation of studies always needs to be done under the background of sample sizes, methodology and possible selection bias. Apart from structural changes, further metabolic changes also detected via non-invasive imaging methods as magnetic resonance imaging would be of great interest.”

“We would like to tackle this question via our multimodal imaging study in Alzheimer’s disease also applying metabolic imaging during an intervention on physical activity. Our study is registered ClinicalTrials.gov (NCT03939286),” Reetz and Haeger added.

The study, “Cerebral changes improved by physical activity during cognitive decline: A systematic review on MRI studies“, was authored by Alexa Haeger, Ana S. Costa, Jörg B. Schulz, and Kathrin Reetz.