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Study aims to advance knowledge of relationship between exercise and brain health

Cumming School researchers recruiting study participants with risk factors for developing dementia
February 28, 2017
Study participants from Brain in Motion l exercise at the University of Calgary gym as part of a six-month aerobic exercise program. Photos by Brain in Motion research teams

Study participants from Brain in Motion l exercise at the University of Calgary gym as part of a six-month aerobic exercise program. Photos by Brain in Motion research team

Ann and Jill, participants of the first Brain in Motion study, take part in a six-month aerobic exercise program at the University of Calgary.

Ann and Jill, participants of the first Brain in Motion study, take part in a six-month aerobic exercise program at the University of Calgary. 

A Brain in Motion research assistant conducts a maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) test, considered the gold standard for fitness testing, on a Brain in Motion study participant.

A Brain in Motion research assistant conducts a maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) test, considered the gold standard for fitness testing, on a Brain in Motion study participant. 

The numbers are staggering. Each year 25,000 Canadians are diagnosed with dementia, and by 2030 the number of Canadians living with the disease will be just shy of one million. Finding a cure, or even effective treatment options, is a daunting task, complicated by the fact that researchers don’t know what causes dementia in the first place.

With this in mind, a group of Cumming School of Medicine researchers are looking to exercise — the only intervention that has been shown to have a disease-modifying effect — for answers.

“It’s clear that exercise is beneficial to maintaining brain health, but the dose of exercise necessary is unclear and I would even say unknown,” says study lead Marc Poulin, PhD, a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. “What we’re working hard on identifying is how to push that knowledge base further.”

The Brain in Motion II study, a followup to Brain in Motion I which was completed in April 2016, will examine the relationship between exercise, cerebral blood flow, and cognition in older adults who are at increased risk of Alzheimer ’s disease and related dementias (ADRD).

“Our hope is that this trial will provide evidence needed to make clinical recommendations for exercise programs in adults at risk for ADRD, with the goal of preventing dementia,” Poulin says.

Understanding mechanisms for protective effect of physical activity

Brain in Motion I demonstrated a significant relationship between fitness, vascular regulation and cognition in older adults free of overt disease. But figuring out the why, and the how, will be key in develop strategies to prevent and treat ADRD.

“We have well-established guidelines for exercise and cardiovascular health generally, but it’s unclear if the brain needs as much exercise. A better understanding of the underlying mechanisms by which exercise prevents or slows age-related decline in cognition will be instrumental in informing interventions,” says Poulin.

What makes the Brain in Motion II study unique is that the participants will all meet the criteria for having an increased risk of developing ADRD — something Poulin says hasn’t been studied before in terms of an exercise-modifying effect.  

The researchers are looking to recruit 264 older adults who have vascular risk factors, or an immediate relative who’s been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and seeing the extent to which they can enhance cognitive performance in those individuals through a six-month exercise program.

Several new community partners will also be involved in the study. The exercise intervention is being designed with input from Alberta Health Services, so it can be readily adopted into clinical practice if the trial is successful. Mount Royal University and the Westside Recreational Centre will also be providing their exercise facilities for study participant use.

New state-of-the-art research facility advances research on benefits of exercise

The exercise testing for the study will be undertaken in a new, state-of-the-art lab at the Cumming School. The Clinical and Translational Exercise Physiology (CTEP) Laboratory is dedicated to health promotion and wellness by advancing knowledge on the role of exercise in the prevention and management of chronic disease. University researchers interested in measuring or improving physical fitness in any clinical population can use the facility.

“Overwhelming scientific evidence from the past three decades tells us that aerobic exercise is beneficial for preventing and managing many chronic conditions,” says Lab Co-ordinator Gabrielle Heine, who is also the clinical exercise physiologist for Brain in Motion II. “The CTEP Lab provides diverse opportunities to explore the relationship between physical fitness and any clinical condition, and we’re excited to have researchers come and take advantage of the facility and the services we offer.”

If you are interested in participating in the Brain in Motion II study, please contact Samantha Hall, study co-ordinator, at 403-210-7315 or by email at bimstudy@ucalgary.ca.

Find out more about the CTEP Lab here.

Marc Poulin is also a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine and the Faculty of Kinesiology.