According to a joint press release from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) and the University of Magdeburg, physical exercise in older adults can improve brain perfusion, as well as certain memory skills. The findings stem from research conducted by Magdeburg researchers who studied men and women aged 60 and 77 years old. Among younger individuals, the release reports that regular training on a treadmill tended to help improve cerebral blood flow and visual memory.

Yet, the release notes that trial participants older than 70 years of age tended to exhibit no benefit of exercise. This indicates that the benefits of exercise may be limited by advancing age.

The results have been published by researchers of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), the University of Magdeburg, and the Leibniz Institute for Neurology in the current edition of Molecular Psychiatry. Also involved in the study were scientists at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, and the Max Planck Institute for Human development.

The release states that the 40 test volunteers were healthy for their age and sedentary when study began. They were divided into two groups and around half of the study participants exercised regularly on a treadmill for 3 months. The remaining participants performed muscle relaxation sessions.

The study indicates that in 7 out of 9 members of the exercise group who were not more than 70 years old, the training improved physical fitness and also tended to increase perfusion in the hippocampus. The heightened perfusion was also accompanied by improved visual memory function; following the study’s completion researchers say these individuals found it easier to memorize abstract images than at the beginning of the training program. The study adds that these effects were largely absent in older volunteers who participated in the workout, as well as in the members of the control group. The study encompassed extensive tests of the volunteers’ physical condition and memory. Additionally, the study participants were examined by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The release reports that an increase through physical exercise had previously only been demonstrated experimentally in younger individuals. However, the new study’s results suggest that some aging brains also retain this ability to adapt. The release also notes that the results indicate changes in memory performance resulting from physical exercise are closely linked to changes in brain perfusion.

Emrah Düzel, professor, site speaker of the DZNE in Magdeburg, and director of the Institute of Cognitive Neurology and Dementia Research at the University of Magdeburg, explains: “Ultimately, we aim to develop measures to purposefully counteract dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. This is why we want to understand the effects of physical exercise on the brain and the related neurobiological mechanisms. This is essential for developing treatments that are truly effective.”

According to the release, the researchers’ goal centers on causing new nerve cells to grow in the brain. In this way, they intend to counter the loss of neurons typical of dementia.

New nerve cells can form even in adult brains, Düzel points out, adding, “Our aim is to stimulate this so-called neurogenesis. We don’t yet know whether our training methods promote the development of new brain cells. However, fundamental research shows that the formation of new brain cells often goes hand in hand with improved brain perfusion.”

The treadmill exercise sessions in the study did cause more blood to reach the hippocampus in younger participants; improving oxygen and nutrients and may also have other positive effects on the brain’s metabolism, Düzel says. Yet, “we have also seen that the effect of the training decreases with age. It is less effective in people aged over 70 than in people in their early 60s. It will be an important goal of our research to understand the causes for this and to find remedies.”

Photo credit: DZNE

Source: German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE)