Exercise May Enhance the Effects of Brain Training

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Exercise broadly improves our memories and thinking skills, according to a wealth of science. The evidence supporting similar benefits from so-called brain training has been much iffier, however, with most people performing better only on the specific types of games or tasks practiced in the program.

But an interesting new study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience suggests that combining intense exercise and brain training might, over time, amplify the benefits of both for the brain, even in people whose minds already are working well.

Most of us are blissfully unaware of the complexity of our brain’s memory systems. Memories come in many different types, including detailed recollections of faces and objects and how they differ from similar faces and objects, as well as separate memories about where and when we last saw those things. These remembrances are created and stored throughout the hippocampus, our brain’s primary memory center.

Past studies with animals show that exercise prompts the creation of many new brain cells in the hippocampus, presumably providing the raw materials — the blank canvas — onto which strong, new memories can be written and allowing for improvements in many types of memory after exercise.

Brain-training programs typically have had more limited effects. Research in people suggests that they often improve only the specific type of memory and thinking tested. So people who practice crossword puzzles may get better at completing crossword puzzles, but they may not get better at remembering where they last put their wallets.

Interestingly, however, some studies in animals have found that learning and thinking of any type, such as occurs during brain training, can improve the survival and functioning of young brain cells.

So scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, began to wonder recently whether brain training and exercise training might be complementary, with exercise prompting the creation of baby neurons that brain training would then strengthen.

To find out, the researchers decided to study a group of healthy, young college students, a group that would be expected to have robust and vigorous memories. If an experimental program resulted in better memories in these people, the scientists reasoned, it should also have implications for those of us whose aging memories might be starting to stutter and fade.

They eventually recruited 95 young men and women, none of whom currently exercised. They drew blood, checked the volunteers’ aerobic fitness, and had them complete a series of memory tests.

Then they randomly sorted them into three groups. One, as a control, was asked to continue with their normal lives.

Another began exercising, reporting to the university’s physiology lab three times a week for 20 minutes of supervised, high-intensity interval training on stationary bicycles. The researchers chose intense intervals because they provide a “strong physical stimulus” which should rapidly raise the fitness of the young people, says Jennifer Heisz, an assistant professor at McMaster University who led the study.

The third group undertook the same cycling program but with the addition of 20 minutes of computerized brain training before or after the workouts. This particular mental training consisted of memorizing faces that were similar to one another and then matching the correct faces as they appeared randomly on a computer screen. This program should improve the ability to dial in the details of the human face, an important but narrow type of memory.

The groups continued their assigned program for six weeks, and then repeated their original tests of fitness and memory.

In general, the young people who had exercised, whether they also brain trained or not, were then more physically fit than those in the control group. They also, for the most part, performed better on memory tests. And those improvements spanned different types of memory, including the ability to rapidly differentiate among pictures of objects that looked similar, a skill not practiced in the brain-training group.

These enhancements in memory were most striking among the volunteers whose fitness had also improved the most, especially if they also practiced brain training.

In effect, more fitness resulted in stronger memories, Dr. Heisz says, with the brain training adding to that effect, even for a type of memory that was not part of the training.

But the gains were not universal, the researchers found. Some of the young people in both exercise groups barely added to their aerobic fitness and also had the skimpiest improvements in memory.

For them, Dr. Heisz and her colleagues suspect, the interval training was probably too intense a form of exercise and may have caused their bodies to produce large amounts of stress hormones, which then affected how well their bodies and brains responded to the activity.

“It’s possible that they would have developed a better response with different and perhaps more-moderate exercise,” she says.

She and her colleagues plan soon to study the effects of various types and amounts of exercise and brain training on memory, including in people who are older. They also hope to follow people for longer periods of time to see whether the brain benefits linger, grow or stall.

But for now, the study’s findings suggest that exercising both our bodies and minds may provide the greatest boost to our memories, she says.

And the effort does not need to be formal or complicated, she adds. “I would suggest memorizing the details of a painting or landscape” — or perhaps a loved one’s face — before or after each workout, she says. It could provide broader memory benefits all around.