Physical activity associated with greater volume, increased brain health | Exercise may help prevent brain atrophy in Parkinson’s disease

Physical activity may have positive effects on brain health, including for people with neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease, by promoting an increase in brain volume, a long-term follow-up study suggests.

“Our study results indicate that even small behavioral changes, such as walking 15 minutes a day or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, have a significant positive effect on the brain and may counteract age-related loss of brain matter and neurodegenerative development diseases,” said Ahmad Aziz, MD, PhD, principal investigator of the research project and study author, in a press release.

The study, “Association between accelerometer-derived measures of physical activity and brain structure: A population-based cohort study“, appeared in neurologythe medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

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According to some studies, certain regions of the brain in people with Parkinson’s can atrophy over time. Researchers believe larger brain volumes offer better protection against neurodegeneration than smaller ones.

Although regular exercise is believed to help delay brain aging and the progression of neurodegenerative diseases, how it affects the brain and which regions are most affected is still unknown.

To learn more, scientists from Population Health Sciences, the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) and the University of Bonn in Germany analyzed physical activity data and MRI brain images from 2,550 people who took part in the Rhineland study.

What is the Rhineland Study?

The Rhineland study is a large-scale population-based study by the DZNE that aims to involve up to 30,000 participants to assess changes in the body and brain over a person’s lifespan. Her primary goal is to develop strategies to prevent dementia and other age-related diseases.

Researchers tracked volunteers’ physical activity using a device called an accelerometer, which was worn on the thigh for seven days. Brain volume and cortex thickness were assessed using MRI scans.

The ages of the participants ranged from 30 to 94 years and their mean age was 54.7 years. More than half (57.6%) were women.

Physical activity had a noticeable effect on almost all brain regions examined. “In general, the higher and more intense the physical activity, the larger the brain regions were, either in terms of volume or cortical thickness,” says Fabienne Fox, first author of the study.

This observation was particularly true for the brain region believed to be the control center of memory – the hippocampus.

However, the results showed greater increases in volume when comparing inactive and moderately active study participants, particularly in those over 70 years of age.

People who engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity also had high brain volume. However, little difference was observed compared to those who were even more active, suggesting that the beneficial effects tend to level off.

“With our results, we want to give another impetus to become more physically active – to promote brain health and prevent neurodegenerative diseases,” said Fox. “Even light physical activity can help. So it’s just a small effort – but with a big impact.”

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Next, the team searched databases for genes that are particularly active in brain areas that benefit most from physical activity – the motor and cortical regions. They identified genes necessary for the work of the mitochondria (organelles in cells that produce energy).

In order to supply the many mitochondria in these brain regions with oxygen, increased blood flow is necessary. This could be why physical activity benefits the brain in these areas, Aziz said.

Further analysis revealed a large overlap between genes whose expression is affected by physical activity and those involved in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. The team hypothesized that this might be why physical activity has a neuroprotective effect.

“While young adults may particularly benefit from additional high-intensity activity, older adults may already benefit from low-intensity activity,” the researchers concluded. “Physical activity and reduced sedentary time may be crucial in preventing age-related brain atrophy and neurodegenerative diseases.”

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