Exercise Increases Brain Size, New Research Finds

Source: University of Western Sydney

Summary: Researchers in a new study has found that aerobic exercise can improve memory function and maintain brain health as we age.

Brain health declines with age. On an average brain shrinks approximately 5% per decade after the age of 40. A tiny brain shrinkage is significant enough to increase the risk of brain-related problems such as memory loss and decline in cognitive function. Studies have shown that physical exercise increases hippocampal volume in animal models (mice and rats) but the evidence from human studies uncertain. Researchers from the University of Western Sydney in a new study examined the effects of aerobic exercise (walking, cycling, treadmill running) on the brain’s region, hippocampus (critical for memory) and has found that aerobic exercise can improve memory function and maintain brain health as we age. The study findings were published in the journal NeuroImage.

Aerobic exercise increases brain size

Credit: University of Western Sydney

To examine the effect of aerobic exercise on the hippocampal volumes in humans, researchers systematically reviewed 14 clinical trials. Brain scans of 737 people before and after aerobic exercise programs were examined. They applied meta-analytic techniques to determine if aerobic exercise resulted in a volumetric increase of the hippocampus. Overall, the results showed that exercise had no effect on the total volume of hippocampus but it significantly increased the left region of the hippocampus in humans. Researchers said that improving healthy aging have implications in preventing age-related neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Joseph Firth said, “When you exercise you produce a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which may help to prevent age-related decline by reducing the deterioration of the brain” and further added “Our data showed that, rather than actually increasing the size of the hippocampus per se, the main ‘brain benefits’ are due to aerobic exercise slowing down the deterioration in brain size. In other words, exercise can be seen as a maintenance program for the brain.”

More Information: Joseph Firth et al. “Effect of aerobic exercise on hippocampal volume in humans: A systematic review and meta-analysis”, NeuroImage (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.11.007

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