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Runners' Brains Have Greater Functional Connectivity, Study Shows

Dec 15, 2016 09:57 AM EST

A team of researchers from the University of Arizona has revealed that runners' brains, just like musicians, are more connected than everyone else. This new discovery may show that running could affect brain structure and function.

According to the new study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, MRI scans show that brains of endurance runners have greater functional connectivity than non-runners who move less or have low physical activity.

The researchers came up with this result by comparing brain scans of two young adult groups: those who have sedentary lifestyles and those who are cross country runners. All the participants belonged to the same age group (18 to 25 years old). They also had a similar body mass index and educational level. During the brain scans, the researchers tested the resting state functional connectivity of the participants' brains.

Results showed that the brains of the cross country runners are more connected in regions such as the frontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, planning, switching attention in between tasks and other cognitive functions.

"One of the things that drove this collaboration was that there has been a recent proliferation of studies, over the last 15 years, that have shown that physical activity and exercise can have a beneficial impact on the brain, but most of that work has been in older adults," David Raichlen, an associate professor of anthropology, said via Science Daily. Raichlen co-designed the study together with Gene Alexander, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies Alzheimer's disease.

"This question of what's occurring in the brain at younger ages hasn't really been explored in much depth, and it's important. Not only are we interested in what's going on in the brains of young adults, but we know that there are things that you do across your lifespan that can impact what happens as you age, so it's important to understand what's happening in the brain at these younger ages," Raichlen added.

The new discovery leads to more understanding on the effects of activities such as running to the brain and its importance on functional connectivity, which is related to Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

"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 aging and disease," said Alexander.

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