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Good aerobic capacity promotes learning

13 February 2012 Suomen Akatemia (Academy of Finland)

Aerobic fitness has a favorable effect on cognitive functions. For example, physically active elderly people are less prone to ageing-related cognitive decline than those who lead a sedentary lifestyle. An increase in physical activity raises both aerobic capacity and learning ability in both humans and animals. However, it is not known whether it is the aerobic capacity or the pleasure and enrichment of physical activity that promotes cognitive functions.

A study conducted by research groups at the University of Jyväskylä shows that aerobic fitness – not physical activity as such – promotes cognitive abilities.

- In this study, we used rat strains raised at the University of Michigan. They had been selectively bred over 23 generations for their endurance running capacity. Due to this breeding, there were natural-born long-distance runners and very poor runners. Results from a test that is a counterpart to the human maximal endurance test indicate that the difference between these strains was 500%, says Heikki Kainulainen, Professor of Exercise Physiology.

- Rats were trained in a discrimination learning test that measures flexible cognition. They were first taught to fetch a food reward in the presence of one tone and to ignore the other one. After learning this rule, the stimulus assignment was reversed and they were required to abandon the old rule and learn a new one, describes Dr. Jan Wikgren, Senior Researcher at the Department of Psychology.

It was found that rats with intrinsically high aerobic capacity clearly outperformed those with intrinsically low aerobic capacity. It must be emphasized that the animals were not given any physical exercise before the learning test. Thus, the results suggest that it is the aerobic capacity and not physical activity alone that is related to flexible cognition.

The results gave rise to many questions. Probably the most crucial seeks to determine the neurobiological mechanisms that mediate the effect of aerobic capacity on brain function.

- In future experiments we aim at studying the possible differences between these strains from the molecular to neurophysiological levels of analysis. Ultimately, we hope to investigate plausible exercise interventions that protect the brain from the detrimental effects of ageing, Wikgren and Kainulainen explain. At least it is safe to say that physical activity is good for your brain at any age.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.01.011

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