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Pitt professor receives $21.8 million to study exercise/brain-health link in older adults

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PITTSBURGH–Improving your memory and brain function as you age might be as simple as investing in a good pair of sneakers, but studies recommending that path are still met with skepticism because the exercise/brain-health connection has not been tested to the rigors of a large-scale, "Phase III" trial. Kirk Erickson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, will conduct such a trial thanks to a five-year, $21.8 million grant from the National Institute on Aging.

"This study will more definitively address whether exercise influences cognitive and brain health in cognitively normal older adults, as well as understanding the mechanisms of physical activity on the brain," said Erickson, director of Pitt's Brain Aging and Cognitive Health Lab.

Erickson's study, "Investigating Gains in Neurocognition in an Intervention Trial of Exercise" (IGNITE), will be conducted in collaboration with Arthur Kramer and Charles Hillman from Northeastern University, Jeffrey Burns from the University of Kansas, and Edward McAuley from the University of Illinois.

The project will study 639 cognitively normal adults between 65 and 80 years of age. Participants will be broken up into three groups to test different "doses": the first group will engage in moderate-intensity exercise–brisk walking–at the public-health recommended dose of 150 minutes a week; the second group will exercise for 225 minutes a week; and the third group will do stretching and toning exercises for 150 minutes a week.

Participants will be examined at the beginning of the study to establish baselines in their cognitive and physical health, using a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests as well as measures of physical function, fitness, and brain health.

The IGNITE study will explore four main aims:

  • whether a moderate-intensity exercise intervention improves cognitive health;
  • whether that intervention improves MRI-measured markers of brain health, and whether those changes are dose dependent;
  • whether changes to the nervous system, heart, and metabolism mediate improvements in the brain and in cognition; and
  • how individual differences such as age and genetics affect the results.

The researchers also hope to discover whether the baseline brain measurements lend insight to participants' compliance with the intervention, as well as the usefulness of analytical brain imaging in understanding the effects of physical activity on the aging brain.

Pitt, Northeastern, and Kansas will serve as the intervention sites.

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