Feature | Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) | December 22, 2016

Runners' Brains May Be More Connected, Research Shows

MRI scans show that running may affect the structure and function of the brain in ways similar to complex tasks like playing a musical instrument

MRI brain

If you're thinking about taking up running as your New Year's resolution and still need some convincing, consider this: MRI scans reveal that endurance runners' brains have greater functional connectivity than the brains of more sedentary individuals.

University of Arizona researchers compared brain scans of young adult cross country runners to young adults who don't engage in regular physical activity. The runners, overall, showed greater functional connectivity — or connections between distinct brain regions — within several areas of the brain, including the frontal cortex, which is important for cognitive functions such as planning, decision-making and the ability to switch attention between tasks.

Although additional research is needed to determine whether these physical differences in brain connectivity result in differences in cognitive functioning, the current findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, help lay the groundwork for researchers to better understand how exercise affects the brain, particularly in young adults.

UA running expert David Raichlen, an associate professor of anthropology, co-designed the study with UA psychology professor Gene Alexander, who studies brain aging and Alzheimer's disease as a member of the UA's Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute.

"One of the things that drove this collaboration was that there has been a recent proliferation of studies, over the last 15 years, that have shown that physical activity and exercise can have a beneficial impact on the brain, but most of that work has been in older adults," Raichlen said.

"This question of what's occurring in the brain at younger ages hasn't really been explored in much depth, and it's important," he said. "Not only are we interested in what's going on in the brains of young adults, but we know that there are things that you do across your lifespan that can impact what happens as you age, so it's important to understand what's happening in the brain at these younger ages."

Along with their colleagues, Raichlen and Alexander compared the MRI scans of a group of male cross country runners to the scans of young adult males who hadn't engaged in any kind of organized athletic activity for at least a year. Participants were roughly the same age — 18 to 25 — with comparable body mass index and educational levels.

The scans measured resting state functional connectivity, or what goes on in the brain while participants are awake but at rest, not engaging in any specific task.

The findings shed new light on the impact that running, as a particular form of exercise, may have on the brain.

Previous studies have shown that activities that require fine motor control, such as playing a musical instrument, or that require high levels of hand-eye coordination, such as playing golf, can alter brain structure and function. However, fewer studies have looked at the effects of more repetitive athletic activities that don't require as much precise motor control — such as running. Raichlen's and Alexander's findings suggest that these types of activities could have a similar effect.

"These activities that people consider repetitive actually involve many complex cognitive functions — like planning and decision-making — that may have effects on the brain," Raichlen said.

Since functional connectivity often appears to be altered in aging adults, and particularly in those with Alzheimer's or other neurodegenerative diseases, it's an important measure to consider, Alexander said. And what researchers learn from the brains of young adults could have implications for the possible prevention of age-related cognitive decline later on.

"One of the key questions that these results raise is whether what we're seeing in young adults — in terms of the connectivity differences — imparts some benefit later in life," said Alexander, who also is a professor of neuroscience and physiological sciences. "The areas of the brain where we saw more connectivity in runners are also the areas that are impacted as we age, so it really raises the question of whether being active as a young adult could be potentially beneficial and perhaps afford some resilience against the effects of aging and disease."

For more information: uanews.arizona.edu/story/runners-brains-may-have-more-connectivity-ua-research-shows

Related Content

Third FDA Clearance Announced for Zebra-Med's AI Solution for Brain Bleed Alerts
Technology | Artificial Intelligence | June 19, 2019
Zebra Medical Vision announced it has received its third U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 510(k) clearance for...
LVivo EF Comparable to MRI, Contrast Echo in Assessing Ejection Fraction
News | Cardiovascular Ultrasound | June 19, 2019
DiA Imaging Analysis announced the presentation of two studies assessing the performance and accuracy of the company's...
New Data Demonstrates Safety Profile of GammaTile Therapy for Various Brain Tumors
News | Brachytherapy Systems | June 18, 2019
GT Medical Technologies Inc. announced the presentation of clinical data from a prospective study of GammaTile Therapy...
Black Men Less Likely to Adopt Active Surveillance for Low-Risk Prostate Cancer
News | Prostate Cancer | June 17, 2019
A new study reveals black men are less likely than white men to adopt an active surveillance strategy for their...
International Working Group Releases New Multiple Myeloma Imaging Guidelines

X-ray images such as the one on the left fail to indicate many cases of advanced bone destruction caused by multiple myeloma, says the author of new guidelines on imaging for patients with myeloma and related disorders. Image courtesy of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

News | Computed Tomography (CT) | June 17, 2019
An International Myeloma Working Group (IMWG) has developed the first set of new recommendations in 10 years for...
SyMRI Software Receives FDA Clearance for Use With Siemens MRI Systems
Technology | Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) | June 14, 2019
SyntheticMR announced U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearance for clinical use of its SyMRI Image and SyMRI...
A high-fidelity 3-D tractography of the left ventricle heart muscle fibers of a mouse

Figure 1. A high-fidelity 3-D tractography of the left ventricle heart muscle fibers of a mouse from Amsterdam Ph.D. researcher Gustav Strijkers.

News | Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) | June 07, 2019
The Amsterdam University Medical Center has won MR Solutions’ Image of the Year 2019 award for the best molecular...
Study Identifies MRI-Guided Radiation Therapy as Growing Market Segment
News | Image Guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT) | June 06, 2019
Revenues from the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-guided radiation therapy systems market exceeded $220 million in...
Ann Arbor Startup Launches Augmented Reality MRI Simulator
Technology | Virtual and Augmented Reality | June 04, 2019
SpellBound, an Ann Arbor startup specializing in augmented reality (AR) tools for children in hospitals, has officially...
AI Biomarker Demonstrates High Predictive Power for Lung Cancer Immunotherapy
News | Artificial Intelligence | May 31, 2019
Lunit announced an abstract presentation of its artificial intelligence (AI) precision medicine research portfolio at...