Aerobic Exercise In Children Makes Their Brain “Beefier” (Increase in White Matter)

Aerobic Exercise In Children Makes Their Brain “Beefier” (Increase in White Matter)

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Title: Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children.

Author: Chaddock-Heyman et al.

Journal: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

Objective: To explore the associations among aerobic fitness and measures of diffusivity and to investigate microstructural white matter properties influenced by aerobic fitness during child development. (Diffusivity is a term referring to specific ways to measure changes in brain matter via MRI).

Background

There are many strategies investigating ways to optimize cognitive and brain development in children that are currently being investigated. This includes

  • Physical activity
  • Computer-based training
  • School curriculum
  • Memory games
  • Practice & repetition.

Aerobic exercise, specifically, is well known to play a role in improving some brain anatomy and cognitive function (very similar to what it does in adults). These can lead to improvements in school and other scholastic activities.

What is less well known is the relationship between aerobic exercise and white matter tracts. There are two types of brain matter, white and grey. Grey matter is typically considered the workhorse responsible for processing, cognition and decision making. White matter is more supportive, acting as a signaling network to help support the grey matter. More white matter is associated with faster, more efficient nerve activity.

The authors of this study sought to assess the relationship between aerobic exercise and changes in white matter.

Methods

This study included 32 children ages 9 and 10.

Physical exercise was performed on a treadmill and measured maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max).

White matter was assessed using MRI both before and after exercise.

Results

Via MRI, the authors identified that higher aerobic fitness was related to increased white matter microstructure in children.

The children who were more fit (as measured by higher VO2MAX on the treadmill) had greater white matter changes than children who were less fit.

Specific changes were observed in the corpus callosum (which connects the right and left brain), the superior longitudinal fasciculus and the superior corona radiata. I would encourage you to read more about these structures if you are interested in neuroanatomy.

Conclusions

This study demonstrates that aerobic exercise positively modulates the microstructure of white matter fibers in the brain during childhood.

These findings add to the evidence that aerobic exercise changes the brain in ways that improve cognitive function in children.

Original Article

Chaddock-Heyman, L., Erickson, K. I., & Holtrop, J. L. (2014). Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00584

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