For traumatic brain injury patients, aerobic exercise can improve cognitive impairments

The incorporation of moderate aerobic exercise over a consistent period of time can help improve cognitive impairments caused by a traumatic brain injury (TBI). That’s the conclusion of a study published by a team of researchers from the Kessler Foundation and the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in Bronx, NY.

Cognitive impairments are commonly found in individuals who have experienced a TBI, presenting a challenge for both patients and clinicians. The dysfunction of these crucial abilities—such as memory, processing speed, and focus—can become debilitating, and is often a hindrance to the day-to-day lives of those afflicted.

While the impairment of cognitive functionality in those with a TBI is widespread, there are very few viable treatment options currently in use. Researchers were eager to uncover new potential treatments that were both non-invasive and cost-effective, leading them to consider widely available options, such as aerobic, or cardio, exercise.

Since the overall benefits of aerobic exercise are well documented, it was speculated that introducing a consistent aerobic exercise routine could be beneficial for those with cognitive impairments caused by a TBI.

This pilot study was the first to examine the direct impact of exercise on the cognitive functionality of those who have experienced a TBI. Researchers chose five physically inactive individuals for this study, each of whom had been living with a TBI for at least ten years and reported notable memory impairments. The five participants were then randomly assigned one of two exercise routines for a period of 12 weeks.

Some participants performed a moderate aerobic cycling exercise while supervised, while the other participants performed a stretching and toning routine. Both before and after the 12 weeks, participants were asked to undergo a series of neuropsychological tests, as well as structural MRI brain scans.

After 12 weeks, the results were clear.

“Compared with controls, the (aerobic) exercise group demonstrated substantially greater improvements in auditory verbal learning and processing speed, and larger increases in volumes of their left hippocampus, left cerebellar cortex, and right cerebellar cortex. We also found that large intervention effects favored the (aerobic) exercise group, which showed gains in processing speed and volume of the right thalamus,” says lead author Dr. Carly Wender in a statement.

Given the significant increase in cognitive functionality in the aerobic exercise group, researchers are hopeful that these preliminary findings can be replicated on a larger scale, potentially leading to new clinical treatment options.

“Our results support the need to explore the relationships between exercise training, cognition, and functional and structural changes in the brain, which may establish the path toward optimal protocols for clinical implementation,” says co-author Dr. Brain Sandroff.

Just how and why these significant changes and improvements occurred remains unclear. But researchers are optimistic this initial study can lead the way to further understanding of aerobic exercise’s impact and the eventual clinical application of prescribed exercise programs for cognitive impairments.

This study is published in the journal Neurocase.

Article written by Adam Swierk

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