A pilot study provides proof-of-concept data for potential benefits of aerobic cycling exercise on cognitive function in individuals with memory impairment due to traumatic brain injury.
A new study by a team of rehabilitation researchers showed that 12-weeks of supervised moderate aerobic cycling might improve memory and processing speed in individuals with cognitive deficits caused by traumatic brain injury.
The study, the first of its kind in the brain injury population, was published online in Neurocase.
Traumatic brain injury and memory loss
According to Headway, the brain injury association, traumatic brain injury is an injury to the brain caused by a trauma to the head (head injury). Causes include road traffic accidents, assaults, falls and accidents at home. The effects of this condition depend on a wide range of factors such as the type, location, and severity of the injury. Symptoms can manifest themselves in physical and behavioural effects such as balance problems, headaches, fatigue, and memory problems.
Participants in the single-blind randomised control trial included five physically inactive individuals with a ten-year history of traumatic brain injury and significant memory impairment. They were randomised to 12-weeks of supervised moderate aerobic cycling exercise (intervention), or 12-weeks of stretching and toning exercise (control). All participants underwent neuropsychological tests of memory and processing speed and structural neuroimaging studies of the brain before and after their 12-weeks of exercise.
“Compared with controls, the 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,” reported lead author Dr Wender, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Traumatic Brain Injury Research at Kessler Foundation. “We also found that large intervention effects favoured the exercise group, which showed gains in processing speed and volume of the right thalamus.
Major treatment challenges
Global cognitive impairments, as seen after traumatic brain injury, present major treatment challenges for clinicians, according to Brian Sandroff, PhD, senior research scientist in the Center for Neuropsychology and Neuroscience Research at Kessler Foundation.
“Because of their effects on multiple cognitive domains, exercise interventions, which are low cost, non-invasive, and readily available, are an attractive option to explore in this population,” he added.
Many traumatic brain injury patients will partake in rehabilitation to treat the physical problems as a result. This can help improve mobility and function, with exercising being key in this process. Rehabilitation may focus on improving strength, balance, coordination and endurance to help improve how the patient functions at home and in the community.
The researchers are the first to look at the cognitive function and morphological changes in the brain in response to exercise in people with traumatic brain injury-related memory impairment, but the study is small, and the data are preliminary.
“Our results support the need to explore the relationships between exercise training, cognition, and functional and structural changes in the brain,” Dr Sandroff summarised, “which may establish the path toward optimal protocols for clinical implementation.”