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What helps the body, helps the brain

What helps the body, helps the brain

Can exercise aid memory? Psychology doctoral student Crystal Cooper, left, studies subjects between ages 60 and 80 to find the answer.

The physical and mental benefits of exercise are documented. But can exercise save a failing memory or reverse declining cognitive function?

Crystal Cooper, a graduate student of health psychology and neuroscience at UT Arlington, hopes to find out. A runner with an interest in cognitive function and Alzheimer’s disease, Cooper was inspired to create a study on the effects of cardiovascular fitness on episodic memory. Her mentor, psychology Associate Professor Timothy Odegard, helped with the project, but Cooper took the lead.

Timothy Odegard

Timothy Odegard, psychology associate professor

“If exercise helps the body, it should help your brain,” she says. “And if exercise actually helps improve cognitive function, then that puts a little bit of the aging process in your control.”

The research subjects, ages 60 to 80, first stay idle for three months and submit to a series of tests to establish baseline readings measuring cardiovascular, physical, and cognitive function. Many of the tests are designed to capture fluid intelligence, or the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly. This type of intelligence tends to decline in late adulthood.

Then the subjects perform cardio on treadmills at UT Arlington’s Maverick Activities Center for another six months, and the tests are repeated throughout. The idea is to gauge whether cardio assists regions of the brain that may have declined with age.

“IF EXERCISE ACTUALLY HELPS IMPROVE COGNITIVE FUNCTION, THEN THAT PUTS A LITTLE BIT OF THE AGING PROCESS IN YOUR CONTROL.”

The research team also is interested in examining brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein the brain uses to create synapses and neurons to help it adapt. If cardio activity can increase the levels of this protein and thus brain and cognitive function, the researchers may be on their way to helping improve quality of life as we age. Kinesiology faculty members Judy Wilson and Brad Heddins are assisting with the study.

Dr. Odegard says that to his knowledge little research has addressed the benefits of cardiovascular exercise on memory. The result could be a greater incentive to stay active.

“It’s so important for us to find ways to naturally preserve memory and overall cognitive function,” Cooper says. “The bottom line is that we’re trying to find ways to help people age more gracefully.”