Running—It Does the Brain Good
In this study the runners showed greater function connectivity within several areas of the brain, including the frontal cortex, where cognitive functions like planning, decision-making and the ability to switch attention between tasks occur.
Raichlen, David A. et al. (2016). Differences in Resting State Functional Connectivity between Young Adult Endurance Athletes and Healthy Controls. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Published online 29 November 2016. doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00610
Expertise and training in fine motor skills has been associated with changes in brain structure, function, and connectivity. Fewer studies have explored the neural effects of athletic activities that do not seem to rely on precise fine motor control (e.g., distance running).
We found two key patterns of significant between-group differences in connectivity that are consistent with the hypothesized cognitive demands of elite endurance running. First, enhanced connectivity between the FPN and brain regions often associated with aspects of working memory and other executive functions (frontal cortex), suggest endurance running may stress executive cognitive functions in ways that increase connectivity in associated networks. Second, we found significant anti-correlations between the DMN and regions associated with motor control (paracentral area), somatosensory functions (post-central region), and visual association abilities (occipital cortex). DMN deactivation with task-positive regions has been shown to be generally beneficial for cognitive performance, suggesting anti-correlated regions observed here are engaged during running. For all between-group differences, there were significant associations between connectivity, self-reported physical activity, and estimates of maximum aerobic capacity, suggesting a dose-response relationship between engagement in endurance running and connectivity strength. Together these results suggest that differences in experience with endurance running are associated with differences in functional brain connectivity. High intensity aerobic activity that requires sustained, repetitive locomotor and navigational skills may stress cognitive domains in ways that lead to altered brain connectivity, which in turn has implications for understanding the beneficial role of exercise for brain and cognitive function over the lifespan.