Exercise & Cognition

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Cognitive Function: Effects of Physical & Mental Exercise

16 Recent Studies

Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP

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The following resource may help therapists, counselors, patients, and their families who wish to keep abreast of the rapidly evolving research on the effects of physical and mental exercise on cognitive functioning.


I've pulled together some recent (i.e., published in 2015-2016) research on exercise and cognition. 


I'll continue to update this resource from time to time, but currently there are 16 citations with excerpts below.


One of the other pages on this site that some visitors may find helpful is "Resources for People with Alzheimer's, Family, & Clinicians."


Here are 16 studies published in 2015-2016:


Barcelos, N., et al. (2015). "Aerobic and cognitive exercise (ACE) pilot study for older adults: Executive function improves with cognitive challenge while exergaming." Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society 21(10): 768-779.


            Excerpt: "Dementia cases are increasing worldwide; thus, investigators seek to identify interventions that might prevent or ameliorate cognitive decline in later life. Extensive research confirms the benefits of physical exercise for brain health….  Interactive mental and physical exercise, as in aerobic exergaming, not only motivates, but has also been found to yield cognitive benefit above and beyond traditional exercise. This pilot study sought to investigate whether greater cognitive challenge while exergaming would yield differential outcomes in executive function and generalize to everyday functioning….  Those in the high cognitive demand group performed better than those in the low cognitive dose condition. Everyday function improved across both exercise conditions….data indicate that for older adults, cognitive benefit while exergaming increased concomitantly with higher doses of interactive mental challenge.


Best, J. R., et al. (2015). "Long-term effects of resistance exercise training on cognition and brain volume in older women: Results from a randomized controlled trial." Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society 21(10): 745-756.


            Excerpt: "Aerobic exercise training has been shown to attenuate cognitive decline and reduce brain atrophy with advancing age. The extent to which resistance exercise training improves cognition and prevents brain atrophy is less known, and few studies include long-term follow-up cognitive and neuroimaging assessments…. At 2-year follow-up, both frequencies of resistance training promoted executive function compared to balance-and-toning….  Additionally, twice-weekly resistance training promoted memory…, reduced cortical white matter atrophy…, and increased peak muscle power…at 2-year follow-up relative to balance-and-toning. These effects were independent of one another. These findings suggest resistance training may have a long-term impact on cognition and white matter volume in older women.


Castellar, E. N., et al. (2015). "Cognitive abilities, digital games and arithmetic performance enhancement: A study comparing the effects of a math game and paper exercises." Computers & Education 85: 123-133.


            Excerpt: "In a previous study, it was found that playing Monkey Tales, a game aimed at training arithmetic skills, helped second grade pupils to increase their accuracy in mental calculation as compared to paper exercises. In this follow up study we explore whether traditional methods and game training differ in terms of the cognitive processes that both are able to impact….  We found some evidence suggesting that arithmetic performance enhancement induced by game play and paper exercises differ not only in terms of enjoyment but also of working memory capacity improvements."


Chu, C.-H., et al. (2015). "Exercise and fitness modulate cognitive function in older adults." Psychology and Aging 30(4): 842-848.


            Excerpt: "Our findings demonstrated that acute exercise leads to general improvements in 2 types of cognitive functions and to specific improvements in executive function. Additionally, older adults with initially higher fitness levels experienced greater beneficial effects from acute exercise."


Crispim Nascimento, C. M., et al. (2015). "Physical exercise improves peripheral BDNF levels and cognitive functions in mild cognitive impairment elderly with different BDNF Val66Met genotypes." Journal of Alzheimer's Disease 43(1): 81-91.


            Excerpt: "The benefits of physical exercise on improvements in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels and cognitive functioning have been reported in the literature….  The BDNF genotype appears to modulate the effects of physical exercise on BDNF secretion, but it does not influence cognition. This is the first study that evaluated the influence of a BDNF polymorphism on physical activity and cognition performance in elderly MCI individuals."


Duchesne, C., et al. (2015). "Enhancing both motor and cognitive functioning in Parkinson's disease: Aerobic exercise as a rehabilitative intervention." Brain and Cognition 99: 68-77.


            Excerpt: "Our results suggest that AET [Aerobic Exercise Training] can be a valuable non-pharmacological intervention to promote physical fitness in early PD, but also better cognitive and procedural functioning."


Fedor, A., et al. (2015). "The effects of a brief, water-based exercise intervention on cognitive function in older adults." Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology 30(2): 139-147.


            Excerpt: "Physical inactivity is a modifiable risk factor for accelerated cognitive decline in older adults. Water-based exercise provides the same physiological benefits as land-based exercise with reduced risk of acute injury. The current study evaluated the effects of a brief, water-based exercise intervention on cognitive functioning and cardiovascular fitness in a group of community dwelling older adults….  The exercise group demonstrated significant improvements in cardiovascular fitness, as well as executive function, attention, and memory over controls."


Greer, T. L., et al. (2015). "Dose-dependent changes in cognitive function with exercise augmentation for major depression: Results from the TREAD study." European Neuropsychopharmacology 25(2): 248-256.


            Excerpt: "Cognitive dysfunction has been repeatedly observed in major depressive disorder (MDD), particularly in areas of attention, verbal and nonverbal learning and memory, and executive functioning. Exercise has been shown to improve cognitive outcomes in other populations, including age-associated cognitive decline, but has not to our knowledge been investigated as an augmentation strategy in depression. This study evaluated the effectiveness of exercise augmentation on cognitive performance in persons with MDD and residual symptoms that included cognitive complaints following initial treatment with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI)…. This study suggests a dose–response effect of exercise in specific executive function and working memory tasks among depressed persons with a partial response to SSRI and cognitive complaints, with some cognitive functions improving regardless of exercise dose."


Köbe, T., et al. (2015). "Combined omega-3 fatty acids, aerobic exercise and cognitive stimulation prevents decline in gray matter volume of the frontal, parietal and cingulate cortex in patients with mild cognitive impairment." NeuroImage, published online in advance of print publication.


            Excerpt: "Previous studies in older adults suggested beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acid (FA) supplementation, aerobic exercise, or cognitive stimulation on brain structure and function. However, combined effects of these interventions in patients suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) are unknown. Using a randomized interventional design, we evaluated the effect of combined omega-3 FA supplementation, aerobic exercise and cognitive stimulation (target intervention) versus omega-3 FA supplementation and non-aerobic exercise (control intervention) on cognitive function and gray matter volume in patients with MCI. Moreover, we analyzed potential vascular, metabolic or inflammatory mechanisms underlying these effects…. This pilot study provides preliminary evidence that omega-3 FA intake combined with aerobic exercise and cognitive stimulation prevents atrophy in AD-related brain regions in MCI patients, compared to omega-3 FA intake plus the control condition of stretching and toning."


Li, C., et al. (2015). "Can exercise ameliorate aromatase inhibitor-induced cognitive decline in breast cancer patients?" Molecular Neurobiology, published online in advance of print publication.


            Exercise: "While extensive evidence suggested that physical exercises can improve learning and memory activity and even prevent age-related cognitive decline, basic research revealed some common pathways between exercise and estrogen signaling that affected cognitive function. This review draws on clinical and basic studies to assess the potential impact of exercise in cognitive function from women treated with AIs for breast cancer and explore the potential mechanism and effects of exercise on estrogen-related cognition."


Ngandu, T., et al. (2015). "A 2 year multidomain intervention of diet, exercise, cognitive training, and vascular risk monitoring versus control to prevent cognitive decline in at-risk elderly people (FINGER): A randomised controlled trial." The Lancet 385(9984): 2255-2263.


            Exercise: "Background: Modifiable vascular and lifestyle-related risk factors have been associated with dementia risk in observational studies….  In a double-blind randomised controlled trial we enrolled individuals aged 60–77 years recruited from previous national surveys…. Findings from this large, long-term, randomised controlled trial suggest that a multidomain intervention could improve or maintain cognitive functioning in at-risk elderly people from the general population."


Nishiguchi, S., et al. (2015). "A 12-week physical and cognitive exercise program can improve cognitive function and neural efficiency in community-dwelling older adults: A randomized controlled trial." Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 63(7): 1355-1363.


            Excerpt: "Exercise group participants had significantly greater postintervention improvement in memory and executive functions than the control group….  A twelve week physical and cognitive exercise program can improve the efficiency of brain activation during cognitive tasks in older adults, which is associated with improvements in memory and executive function."


Ryan, S. M. and Y. M. Nolan (2016). "Neuroinflammation negatively affects adult hippocampal neurogenesis and cognition: Can exercise compensate?" Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 61: 121-131.


            Excerpt: "Adult hippocampal neurogenesis is believed to be integral for certain forms of learning and memory. Dysregulation of hippocampal neurogenesis has been shown to be an important mechanism underlying the cognitive impairment associated with normal aging, as well as the cognitive deficits evident in preclinical models of Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. Neuroinflammation is a significant pathological feature of these conditions; it contributes to the observed cognitive decline, and recent evidence demonstrates that it also negatively affects hippocampal neurogenesis. Conversely, during the past twenty years, it has been robustly shown that exercise is a potent inducer of hippocampal neurogenesis, and it is believed that the positive beneficial effect of exercise on cognitive function is likely due to its pro-neurogenic effects. However, the interplay between exercise- and neuroinflammatory-induced changes in hippocampal neurogenesis and associated cognitive function has only recently begun to receive attention. Here we review the current literature on exercise-induced effects on hippocampal neurogenesis, cognitive function and neuroinflammation, and consider exercise as a potential pro-neurogenic and anti-inflammatory intervention for cognition."


Steinberg, S. I., et al. (2015). "Exercise, sedentary pastimes, and cognitive performance in healthy older adults." American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias 30(3): 290-298.


            Excerpt: "Sedentary pastimes were associated with executive dysfunction…; MVPA with high memory scores…and NEPA with improved working memory…. Only sedentary pastimes and executive dysfunction retained significance after correction for multiple comparisons."


Tortosa-Martínez, J., et al. (2015). "Exercise increases the dynamics of diurnal cortisol secretion and executive function in people with amnestic mild cognitive impairment." Journal of Aging and Physical Activity 23(4): 550-558.


            Excerpt: "Regular physical activity is protective against, and beneficial for, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), dementia, and Alzheimer´s disease. The mechanisms underlying these benefits remain unknown although it has been suggested that exercise-induced changes in the circadian pattern of cortisol secretion may be implicated…. The exercise intervention successfully increased fitness and resulted in a greater fall in cortisol concentration from peak to midday, compared with the control group. The exercise intervention enhanced indices of executive function, although memory, mood, and functionality were not affected."


Wollseiffen, P., et al. (2015). "Short bouts of intensive exercise during the workday have a positive effect on neurocognitive performance." Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, published online in advance of print publication.


            Excerpt: "Beside its positive impact on physical health, exercise is indicated to positively affect cognitive performance based on a relocation of cortical activity. This study examined the influence of different types of breaks on cognitive performance and related cortical activity in office based employees. Breaks were filled with exercise, resting or a usual break and a control condition where employees continued working without any break….  Results indicate a positive effect of a three-minute boxing intervention on cognitive performance, mirrored by a decrease in prefrontal cortex activity. Although perceived psychological state was increased after the usual break, this is reflected in neither cortical activity nor cognitive performance. With respect to the fact that also bike activity resulted an increase in prefrontal alpha-2 activity, a positive effect of exercise on neurocognitive performance can be stated. Health and economic benefits may result from brief physical activity breaks and help to maintain workplace performance and job satisfaction."




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