Navigate Up

UPMC/University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
For Journalists
Senior Manager
Telephone: 412-578-9193 or 412-624-3212
Manager
Telephone: 412-586-9776
Patient & Other Inquiries



Burning More Calories Associated with Greater Gray Matter Volume in Brain, Reduced Alzheimer’s Risk

PITTSBURGH, March 11, 2016 – Whether they jog, swim, garden or dance, physically active older persons  have larger gray matter volume in key brain areas responsible for memory and cognition, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UCLA
 
The findings, published today in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, showed also that people who had Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment experienced less gray matter volume reduction over time if their exercise-associated calorie burn was high.
 
A growing number of studies indicate physical activity can help protect the brain from cognitive decline, said investigator James T. Becker, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, Pitt School of Medicine. But typically people are more sedentary as they get older, which also is when the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias increases.
 
“Our current treatments for dementia are limited in their effectiveness, so developing approaches to prevent or slow these disorders is crucial,” Dr. Becker said. “Our study is one of the largest to examine the relationship between physical activity and cognitive decline, and the results strongly support the notion that staying active maintains brain health.”
 
Led by Cyrus Raji, M.D., Ph.D., formerly a student at Pitt School of Medicine and now a senior radiology resident at UCLA, the team examined data obtained over five years from nearly 876 people 65 or older participating in the multicenter Cardiovascular Health Study. All participants had brain scans and periodic cognitive assessments. They also were surveyed about how frequently they engaged in physical activities, such as walking, tennis, dancing and golfing, to assess their calorie expenditure or energy output per week.
 
Using mathematical modeling, the researchers found that the individuals who burned the most calories had larger gray matter volumes in the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes of the brain, areas that are associated with memory, learning and performing complex cognitive tasks. In a subset of more than 300 participants at the Pitt site, those with the highest energy expenditure had larger gray matter volumes in key areas on initial brain scans and were half as likely to have developed Alzheimer’s disease five years later.
 
“Gray matter houses all of the neurons in your brain, so its volume can reflect neuronal health,” Dr. Raji explained. “We also noted that these volumes increased if people became more active over five years leading up to their brain MRI.”
 
He added that advancements in technology might soon make it feasible to conduct baseline neuroimaging studies of people who already have mild cognitive impairment or who are at risk for a dementia disorder, with the aim of prescribing lifestyle approaches such as physical activity to prevent further memory deterioration.
 
“Rather than wait for memory loss, we might consider putting the patient on an exercise program and then rescan later to see if there are any changes in the brain,” Dr. Raji said.
 
In a journal press release, George Perry, Ph.D., Dean of Sciences at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Editor in Chief of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, called the research “a landmark study that links exercise to increases in gray matter and opens the field of lifestyle intervention to objective biological measurement.”
 
Other members of the research team include Kirk I. Erickson, Ph.D., Oscar L. Lopez, M.D., H. Michael Gachi, Ph.D., and Lewis Kuller, M.D., Dr.P.H., all of the University of Pittsburgh; David A. Merrill, M.D., Ph.D., Harris Eyre, M.D., Sravya Mallam, B.S., Nare Torosyan, B.S., and Paul M. Thompson, Ph.D., all of UCLA; Owen T. Carmichael, Ph.D., of University of California, Davis; and W.T. Longstreth, Jr., M.D., of the University of Washington.  
 
The research was supported in part by funds from contract numbers N01-HC-80007, N01-HC-85079 through N01-540 HC-85086, N01-HC-35129, N01-HC-15103, N01-541 HC-55222, N01-HC-75150, N01-HC-45133 and grant HL080295 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, with additional contribution from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences Supplemental content provided by Healthwise, Incorporated. To learn more, visit www.healthwise.org

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on UPMC.com is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, UPMC.com is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

UPMC
Pittsburgh, PA, USA | UPMC.com