Aerobically fit kids have more compact and fibrous white matter tracts in brain

From University of Illinois News:

Physically fit kids have beefier brain white matter than their less-fit peers

Laura Chaddock-Heyman and Charles Hillman
Photo by
L. Brian Stauffer


Kinesiology and community health professor Charles Hillman (right), postdoctoral researcher Laura Chaddock-Heyman and their colleagues found that physically fit children had more compact white-matter tracts in the brain than children who were less fit.

8/19/2014 | Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor | 217-333-5802; diya@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new study of 9- and 10-year-olds finds that those who are more aerobically fit have more fibrous and compact white-matter tracts in the brain than their peers who are less fit. “White matter” describes the bundles of axons that carry nerve signals from one brain region to another. More compact white matter is associated with faster and more efficient nerve activity.

Arthur KramerWith his colleagues, Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer found an association between physical fitness and the integrity of white-matter tracts in the brains of 9- and 10-year-old children. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The team reports its findings in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

“Previous studies suggest that children with higher levels of aerobic fitness show greater brain volumes in gray-matter brain regions important for memory and learning,” said University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Laura Chaddock-Heyman, who conducted the study with kinesiology and community health professor Charles Hillman and psychology professor and Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer. “Now for the first time we explored how aerobic fitness relates to white matter in children’s brains.”

The team used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI, also called diffusion MRI) to look at five white-matter tracts in the brains of the 24 participants. This method analyzes water diffusion into tissues. For white matter, less water diffusion means the tissue is more fibrous and compact, both desirable traits.

The researchers controlled for several variables – such as social and economic status, the timing of puberty, IQ, or a diagnosis of ADHD or other learning disabilities – that might have contributed to the reported fitness differences in the brain.

The analysis revealed significant fitness-related differences in the integrity of several white-matter tracts in the brain: the corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s left and right hemispheres; the superior longitudinal fasciculus, a pair of structures that connect the frontal and parietal lobes; and the superior corona radiata, which connect the cerebral cortex to the brain stem.
“All of these tracts have been found to play a role in attention and memory,” Chaddock-Heyman said.

The team did not test for cognitive differences in the children in this study, but previous work has demonstrated a link between improved aerobic fitness and gains in cognitive function on specific tasks and in academic settings.

“Previous studies in our lab have reported a relationship between fitness and white-matter integrity in older adults,” Kramer said. “Therefore, it appears that fitness may have beneficial effects on white matter throughout the lifespan.”

Read more.

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