MRI scans show a stronger body means a stronger brain

German researchers have found that physical fitness can actually improve brain structure and brain functioning in young people, according to a study presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress in Copenhagen.

Prior research has established that exercise is beneficial for the brain, but few studies have looked at a correlation between fitness and brain structure and mental functioning. The work, published in Scientific Reports, suggests breaking a sweat could lead to improved cognition and memory.

Lead investigator Jonathan Repple, University Hospital in Muenster, Germany, and colleagues set out to examine associations between walking endurance and brain white matter measured by diffusion-tensor imaging. They used a publicly available database of 1,206 MRI scans from the Human Connectome Project.

“The great strength of this work is the size of the database,” Repple added. “Normally when you are dealing with MRI work, a sample of 30 is pretty good, but the existence of this large MRI database allowed us to eliminate possibly misleading factors, and strengthened the analysis considerably."

Each of the volunteers involved in the database underwent a two-minute test where they were asked to walk as fast as they could while the researchers measured their distance traveled. The participants then completed a few cognitive tests to measure things such as memory, sharpness, judgement and reasoning.

The results showed that the young adults who performed better during the walking test were associated with better cognitive test scores along with improved structural integrity of the brain’s white matter.

"It surprised us to see that even in a young population cognitive performance decreases as fitness levels drops. We knew how this might be important in an elderly population which does not necessarily have good health, but to see this happening in 30 year olds is surprising,” Repple said in a news release. “This leads us to believe that a basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk factor for brain health.”

This research is only the beginning, the Repple emphasized.

“This type of study raises an important question,” Repple said. “We see that fitter people have better brain health, so we now need to ask whether actually making people fitter will improve their brain health. Finding this out is our next step. There are some trials which point in that direction, but if we can prove this using such a large database, this would be very significant."