Washington, Dec 15: Make running your New Year's resolution if you want to boost your brain function, say scientists who have found that cross country runners have greater connectivity in brain areas linked to planning and decision-making.
Researchers from University of Arizona (UA) in the US compared brain scans of young adult cross country runners to young adults who do not engage in regular physical activity.
The runners showed greater functional connectivity - or connections between distinct brain regions - within several areas of the brain, including the frontal cortex, which is important for cognitive functions such as decision-making, planning and the ability to switch attention between tasks.
The research may help better understand how exercise affects the brain, particularly in young adults. Researchers compared MRI scans of a group of male cross country runners to the scans of young adult males who had not engaged in any kind of organised athletic activity for at least a year.
Participants were roughly the same age - 18 to 25 - with comparable body mass index and educational levels. The scans measured resting state functional connectivity, or what goes on in the brain while participants are awake but at rest, not engaging in any specific task.
The findings shed new light on the impact that running, as a particular form of exercise, may have on the brain. Previous studies have shown that activities that require fine motor control, such as playing a musical instrument, or that require high levels of hand-eye coordination, such as playing golf, can alter brain structure and function.
However, fewer studies have looked at the effects of more repetitive athletic activities that do not require as much precise motor control - such as running. The results suggest that these types of activities could have a similar effect.
"These activities that people consider repetitive actually involve many complex cognitive functions - like planning and decision-making - that may have effects on the brain," said David Raichlen from UA.
Since functional connectivity often appears to be altered in ageing adults, and particularly in those with Alzheimer's or other neurodegenerative diseases, it is an important measure to consider, researchers said.
"One of the key questions that these results raise is whether what we're seeing in young adults - in terms of the connectivity differences - imparts some benefit later in life," said Gene Alexander from UA.
"The areas of the brain where we saw more connectivity in runners are also the areas that are impacted as we age, so it really raises the question of whether being active as a young adult could be potentially beneficial and perhaps afford some resilience against the effects of ageing and disease," said Alexander. The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.