Mapping Connections Between Exercise and Brain Health

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New research by Pitt Education seeks to discover the linkages between exercise and brain health to help reverse cognitive decline in older adults.

March 01, 2020

Brain atrophy often begins when people are in their 30s. The rate of decline increases over time. However, exercising regularly has been shown to slow down this cognitive deterioration.

A new study being conducted by the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) seeks to better preserve brain health by determining precisely how specific forms of physical activity affect the cognitive function of older adults. The study will employ the use of MRI brain scans, as well as other assessment tools. 

“The project is critical because we have an aging population in this country, especially in Western Pennsylvania,” said John Jakicic, a co-principal investigator of the project from the School of Education. “People are living longer, but does that mean they are functioning well? What if we can gain more knowledge on some specific forms of exercises that can slow the process of brain and physical function decline for individuals?”

Funded by a $2 million grant from UPMC Enterprises, the study is a collaboration between UPMC, the School of Education’s Healthy Lifestyle Institute, the School of Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and the School of Arts and Science’s Department of Psychology. 

In addition to Jakicic, the other Pitt Education faculty member working on the project is Associate Professor Renee Rogers. Dr. Fabrisia Ambrosio of the School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine and Rehabilitation is the co-principal investigator and Kirk Erickson of the School of Arts and Science’s Department of Psychology is a co-investigator on this project.  

Moreover, this study involves international colleagues at UPMC facilities in Palermo and Chianciano, Italy.

Examining Four Types of Exercise

According to Jakicic, the study is unique compared to existing research because it will compare cognitive changes across four types of exercise — aerobics, resistance training, yoga, and mindful/functional movement — with the cognitive functioning of control groups. Other studies to date have focused only on the effects of a single form of physical activity. 

The study will have 150 adults over the age of 60. One hundred people will come from Western Pennsylvania and 50 people will come from Italy. The Italian participants will be recruited through the Italian division of UPMC.

In the study, after participants exercise, their physical function and cognition will be tested. MRI brain scans will be used to determine if there are structural or functional changes to the brains of the participants.

“The interesting pilot data indicates that different types of physical activity may affect parts of the brain differently,” said Jakicic, who is a Distinguished Professor and director of the Healthy Lifestyle Institute. “If, in fact, it’s true that different activities have different effects on the brain, then you may need to do each of these different activities to get the full health benefits.”  In this study the investigators are comparing the effects of aerobic activity, resistance training, yoga, and functional fitness activity. 

In Search of Cognitive Signatures

The ultimate goal of the study is to develop a more complete picture of the effects of physical activity on brain health. 

If researchers can better understand the three biomarkers of brain health—which consist of behavioral, molecular, and structural elements—then they can can categorize patients based on their cognitive signature.

That will allow medical professionals to develop precision-based rehabilitation protocols for patients who are at risk for a decline in cognitive function. 

Jakicic says that exercise has already shown great promise in supporting brain health. Knowledge about the specific linkages of activity and cognition can help older adults live better lives. 

“This study should allow us to make important contributions in the field of health and physical activity that will improve the brain health of older adults,” said Jakicic. “Pitt is in the ideal position to lead the research in this area with our collaborations with colleagues Dr. Ambrosio, Erickson, and Rogers along with our partnership with UPMC and our international colleagues in Italy.”

About the Faculty

John Jakicic

John Jakicic

John Jakicic is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. He is the director of the school's Healthy Lifestyle Institute and has lead academic programs in the areas of health, physical activity, and exercise across the school. A prolific researcher, he has led numerous research studies that have examined the health impacts of various interventions related to healthy lifestyle choices.

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