New research shows that cognitive training improves executive brain function in older adults, including an increase in cerebral blood flow. The same study also showed that aerobic exercise can enhance memory. The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
The researchers split 36 sedentary adults into two groups. One group took part in a 12 week cognitive training program called SMART (Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training) while the other group completed a 12 week aerobic exercise program. Participants were healthy and ranged from 56 to 75 years of age. The group in the SMART program learned strategies to improve integrative reasoning, innovation, and strategic attention. The program was created by the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Dallas. The physical training group completed aerobic exercises that consisted of walking on treadmills and cycling on exercise bikes. Participants in the physical training group exercised three times per week for one hour, maintaining at least 50% of their maximum heart rate. The researchers used MRI scans to gather data on cerebral blood flow and cerebrovascular reactivity for both groups.
The team found that adults in the cognitive training group had a 7.9% increase in global cerebral blood flow. The cognitive training also improved participants’ overall executive brain function. The physical training group did not have the same increase in cerebral blood flow. There was, however, extra blood flow to the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory functions. Participants who had participated in the aerobic exercises performed better on memory tests, showing increases in both immediate and delayed memory. These changes were not seen in the cognitive training group.
Both cognitive training and physical training had beneficial effects for aging adults. Cognitive training improved overall brain function and cerebral blood flow while physical training enhanced memory functions. As people age, they lose global brain blood flow over time, decreasing overall neural health. The authors believe programs such as SMART and aerobic exercise routines can lead to improved brain functions, potentially helping to prevent dementia.
Sandra B. Chapman et al. Distinct Brain and Behavioral Benefits from Cognitive vs. Physical Training: A Randomized Trial in Aging Adults. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2016).