We all know that we can quickly lose cardiovascular endurance if we stop exercising for a few weeks, but what impact does the cessation of exercise have on our brains? New research led by University of Maryland School of Public Health researchers examined cerebral blood flow in healthy, physically fit older adults (ages 50-80 years) before and after a 10-day period during which they stopped all exercise. Using MRI brain imaging techniques, they found a significant decrease in blood flow to several brain regions, including the hippocampus, after they stopped their exercise routines.
“We know that the hippocampus plays an important role in learning and memory and is one of the first brain regions to shrink in people with Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. J. Carson Smith, associate professor of kinesiology and lead author of the study, which is published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in August 2016. “In rodents, the hippocampus responds to exercise training by increasing the growth of new blood vessels and new neurons, and in older people, exercise can help protect the hippocampus from shrinking. So, it is significant that people who stopped exercising for only 10 days showed a decrease in blood flow to brain regions that are important for maintaining cognitive health.”
Hippocampal and Cerebral Blood Flow after Exercise Cessation in Master Athletes
While endurance exercise training improves cerebrovascular health and has neurotrophic effects within the hippocampus, the effects of stopping this exercise on the brain remain unclear. Our aim was to measure the effects of 10 days of detraining on resting cerebral blood flow (rCBF) in gray matter and the hippocampus in healthy and physically fit older adults. We hypothesized that rCBF would decrease in the hippocampus after a 10-day cessation of exercise training. Twelve master athletes, defined as older adults (age ≥ 50 years) with long-term endurance training histories (≥15 years), were recruited from local running clubs. After screening, eligible participants were asked to cease all training and vigorous physical activity for 10 consecutive days. Before and immediately after the exercise cessation period, rCBF was measured with perfusion-weighted MRI. A voxel-wise analysis was used in gray matter, and the hippocampus was selected a priori as a structurally defined region of interest (ROI), to detect rCBF changes over time. Resting CBF significantly decreased in eight gray matter brain regions. These regions included: (L) inferior temporal gyrus, fusiform gyrus, inferior parietal lobule, (R) cerebellar tonsil, lingual gyrus, precuneus, and bilateral cerebellum (FWE p < 0.05). Additionally, rCBF within the left and right hippocampus significantly decreased after 10 days of no exercise training. These findings suggest that the cerebrovascular system, including the regulation of resting hippocampal blood flow, is responsive to short-term decreases in exercise training among master athletes. Cessation of exercise training among physically fit individuals may provide a novel method to assess the effects of acute exercise and exercise training on brain function in older adults.