Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have mapped how the brain changes after one year of aerobic exercise. In particular, they found that exercise boosts blood flow in two areas of the brain linked to memory.
For the study, the researchers monitored changes in both long-term memory and cerebral blood flow in 30 participants with memory issues. Their average age was 66.4 years old. While half of them undertook regular aerobic workouts three times per week for 25-30 minutes, the other half only engaged in gentle stretching.
Before and after the study period, each participant took neuropsychological tests to assess their cognition. They also underwent Transcranial Doppler ultrasounds to measure their cerebral blood flow velocity.
In the end, the researchers found that those in the aerobic group saw their memory scores increase by 47%, whereas the gentle-stretching group saw negligible changes. Meanwhile, brain imaging from the aerobic group showed they had increased blood flow in the anterior cingulate cortex in the hippocampus- areas of the brain responsible for memory.
Beyond this study, there is already a substantial body of research suggesting the benefits of exercise to the brain. This research thus supports the idea that even when memory starts to fade, aerobic exercise may be an easily accessible and effective intervention.
Nevertheless, the researchers hope that their findings may one day inform research on drugs able to stimulate these regions to treat people with memory problems. Binu Thomas, one of the researchers behind the study, said, "Perhaps we can one day develop a drug or procedure that safely targets blood flow into these brain regions...But we're just getting started with exploring the right combination of strategies to help prevent or delay symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. There's much more to understand about the brain and aging."