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Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas Researchers Discover Brain Function Preserved by Aerobic Training

DALLAS — Dallas researchers have pinpointed the specific parts of the brain that benefit from long-term aerobic exercise. It’s one of the first times scientists have identified how and where exercise benefits brain function.

Benjamin Tseng, Ph.D.
Benjamin Tseng, Ph.D.
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The researchers at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, a joint research program with UT Southwestern Medical Center, found that the white matter associated with executive function, muscle control and other important neurological functions was better preserved in long-time exercisers.

The researchers presented their finding at the 58th annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the second World Congress on Exercise is Medicine® in Denver, Colo.

“We know that brain structure and some aspects of cognitive function deteriorate with aging, but we haven’t been able to find exactly what the contributing factors and mechanisms are,” said lead author Benjamin Tseng, Ph.D., a researcher in the IEEM’s Cerebrovascular Lab. “Our preliminary results shed light on this important topic, and we hope the findings lead to better prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.”

White matter is the superhighway of brain tissue. It transmits messages between different regions of gray matter, the neuron-laden portion of the brain where functions like seeing, hearing, speaking, memory and emotions take place. Without properly functioning white matter, gray matter isn’t able to do its work. People with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia often exhibit signs of white matter abnormalities.

“As the U.S. population ages, maintaining cognitive vitality and preventing dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease in older adults should be a priority for public health,” Tseng said.

Using state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and cutting-edge diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) techniques, the Dallas scientists were able to measure brain structure and connectivity of ten Masters athletes (averaging 73 years of age) who had engaged in competitive aerobic training for at least 15 years. The results were compared with ten sedentary people of similar age and education level.

“There are many mysteries about brain vascular function in healthy seniors and how it’s different in those with mild cognitive impairment, which leads to Alzheimer’s disease,” said IEEM researcher Rong Zhang, Ph.D., director of the institute’s Cerebrovascular Lab. “And little has been known about whether exercise training improves brain blood flow and how changes in brain blood flow are related to brain structure and function. The results of this project begin to shed light on these mysteries of the aging brain.”

The IEEM researchers found that the Masters athletes showed better white matter fiber integrity than non-athletes in areas of the brain linked with working memory, motor learning, motor control, and visuospatial and visuomotor attention.

“Without properly functioning white matter, people can begin to show signs of neurological problems,” said Dr. Benjamin Levine, director of the IEEM and a professor of medicine and cardiology and a distinguished professor in exercise science at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “They can lose the ability to do simple daily tasks that we take for granted.”

By identifying what region of the brain is affected by aging and exercise, scientists may be able to better target medications to adults who, because of other health condition, cannot participate in consistent aerobic activity.

“It also tells us that long-term aerobic exercise has definitive, measurable impact on brain health,” Levine said. “Most importantly, it lets us know that we have tools that can help fight off dementia and some of the other classic signs of aging with a purposeful, consistent exercise regimen.”

About the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine
The Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM) was founded as a joint program between Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical Center. Its mission is to promote basic and clinical research, education, and clinical practice in defining the limits to human functional capacity in health and disease, with the objective of improving the quality of life for human beings of all ages. The IEEM includes ten major laboratories tightly integrated and organized intellectually along the “oxygen cascade” — the path that oxygen must follow through the body from the external environment through the lungs, heart, skeletal muscles, and brain to perform cognitive function and physical activity. The IEEM is among the few research centers in the world that fosters the fusion of basic science and clinical medicine in a program designed specifically to study human physiology.

About Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas is an 898-bed acute care hospital and recognized clinical program leader, having provided compassionate care to the residents of Dallas and surrounding communities since 1966. U.S. News and World Report has ranked Texas Health Dallas among the nation’s best hospitals in digestive disorders, orthopedics, and neurology and neurosurgery. An affiliate of the faith-based, nonprofit Texas Health Resources system, Texas Health Dallas has approximately 4,000 employees and an active medical staff of more than 1,000 physicians. For more information, call 1-877-THR-WELL, or visit

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