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Runners' Brains May Develop Greater Connectivity

Much like playing a musical instrument, running improves brain connectivity.

Andrea Danti/Shutterstock
Source: Andrea Danti/Shutterstock

Endurance running may alter the structure and functional connectivity of the brain in ways similar to practicing complex tasks such as playing a musical instrument, according to a new study from the University of Arizona (UA). The findings were published yesterday in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

This groundbreaking study used advanced functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) to pinpoint various ways that endurance runners' brains display different resting state functional connectivity than their more sedentary counterparts.

For this study, David Raichlen, a running expert and associate professor of anthropology at UA, collaborated with psychology and neuroscience professor Gene Alexander, who studies brain aging and Alzheimer's disease.

The UA researchers compared brain scans of young adult (ages 18-25) cross country runners to young adults who hadn't engaged in sustained moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) for over a year.

Across the board, runners showed greater functional connectivity between distinct brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is involved in advanced cognitive functions such as planning, decision-making, and the ability to switch your attention between various tasks.

Previous studies have shown that activities requiring fine-tuned motor control, such as playing a musical instrument, or higher levels of hand-eye coordination, such as playing golf, can alter brain structure and function. However, until now, few studies have investigated the impact of more repetitive aerobic activities, such as running, have on brain structure and connectivity.

The findings of Raichlen and Alexander suggest that both fine-tuned complex motor activities and endurance running may promote similar brain changes. In a statement to UA, Raichlen said, "These activities that people consider repetitive actually involve many complex cognitive functions—like planning and decision-making—that may have effects on the brain."

More specifically, the researchers found that endurance running appears to engage multiple cognitive actions, including multi-tasking, planning, inhibition, monitoring, and attentional switching. For this study, the researchers examined connectivity in three resting-state networks that link such executive functions with motor control: the default mode network (DMN), the frontoparietal network (FPN), and the motor network (MN).

For all participants in the running group, there were significant associations between brain connectivity, self-reported physical activity, and estimates of maximum aerobic capacity. This suggests a dose-response relationship between engagement in endurance running and the strength of brain connectivity.

Functional connectivity often diminishes as we age. The deterioration of functional connectivity is more pronounced in those with Alzheimer's or other neurodegenerative diseases. Any insights researchers gain on lifestyle choices that optimize functional connectivity by studying the brains of healthy young adults could have broad implications for potential interventions that target age-related cognitive decline. Alexander said in a statement,

"One of the key questions that these results raise is whether what we're seeing in young adults—in terms of the connectivity differences—imparts some benefit later in life. 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."

Musical Training Promotes Brain Changes That Improve Executive Function

Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience, Boston Children's Hospital, used with permission
This image shows functional MRI imaging during mental task switching: Panels A and B shows brain activation in musically trained and untrained children, respectively. Panel C shows brain areas that are more active in musically trained than musically untrained children.
Source: Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience, Boston Children's Hospital, used with permission

The complex task of playing a musical instrument requires fine-tuned motor control and cognition. A 2014 study from Boston Children’s Hospital found a possible brain link between musical training and improved executive functioning in both children and adults. (Executive functions are the high-level cognitive processes that allow us to quickly process and retain information, regulate our behaviors, make good choices, solve problems, plan and adjust to changing mental demands, etc.)

This was one of the first studies to examine how brain changes triggered by musical training impact executive functions. In a press release, senior investigator Nadine Gaab, of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children's stated,

"Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications. While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation, our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future."

Another 2014 study from the University of Vermont (UVM) found that musical training might help kids focus their attention, control their emotions, and diminish their anxiety by bulking up the gray matter of the cerebral cortex. Using MRI brain imaging, the researchers found that musical training altered a variety of brain areas.

Interestingly, changes in brain structure were also found to affect areas of the brain that regulate behavior. The researchers discovered that a child's musical background appears to correlate with cortical thickness in brain areas that play a critical role in inhibitory control, as well as aspects of emotional processing.

As children age, the cerebral cortex typically changes in thickness. After analyzing the neuroimaging data, the UVM researchers concluded that thickening or thinning in specific areas of the cortex were correlated with the occurrence of anxiety, depression, attention problems, aggression, and behavior control issues.

Runners and Musicians Display Enhanced Brain Connectivity

The latest University of Arizona study concludes that similar brain changes are gained via the precise, fine-tuned motor skills associated with playing a musical instrument and the seemingly repetitive action of sustained aerobic motor behaviors, such as endurance running.

Future studies will focus on pinpointing how exercise-induced or musical training-induced neuroplasticity in young adults might improve cognitive function in the short- and long-term. Regular physical activity and musical training seem to share the ability to promote greater brain connectivity and better cognitive function across the human lifespan. Stay tuned for more cutting-edge research on this exciting topic!


David A. Raichlen, Pradyumna K. Bharadwaj, Megan C. Fitzhugh, Kari A. Haws, Gabrielle-Ann Torre, Theodore P. Trouard, Gene E. Alexander. Differences in Resting State Functional Connectivity between Young Adult Endurance Athletes and Healthy Controls. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2016; 10 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00610

Jennifer Zuk, Christopher Benjamin, Arnold Kenyon, Nadine Gaab. Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians. PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (6): e99868 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0099868

James Hudziak, M.D. et al. Cortical Thickness Maturation and Duration of Music Training: Health-Promoting Activities Shape Brain Development. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, December 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaac.2014.06.015 show

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