NYT: Does Exercise Change Your Brain?

September 04, 2015

Olga Kotelko, internationally acclaimed nonagenarian track and field athlete, allowed for her brain to be scanned by researchers at the University of Illinois. The New York Times recently featured her story and the current state of neurological research. 

Ms. Kotelko  has won gold medals and set 30 world records in masters track and field events. The researchers were especially attracted to the fact Kotelko had only started her athletic training until the age of 77. The scans of her brain could potentially show scientists what impact late-life exercise can do for our brains.

The researchers found that her brain appeared significantly different from those of other over 90-plus volunteers who participated in the study. Her brain's white matter, the brain's cells that connect neurons and help to transmit messages from one part of the brain to another, shower much fewer abnormalities than the brain scans of other people her age. Her hippocampus, the part of the brain dealing with memory, was much larger than those of similarly aged volunteers. The researchers concluded that overall her brain seemed much younger than her age.

Unfortunately the researchers were unable to scan her brain before she had started her track and field training regimen. This makes it difficult to find correlation between her late in life training and her brain's stellar health.

The evidence between the two has been quite difficult to correlate. There have been many epidemiological studies showing that physically active older people perform much better than cognitive test than the sedentary counterparts. But correlating between the two has been difficult for scientists. Dr. Burzynska, professor of human development at Colorado State University, "there are so many things that may impact brain aging, and so much that we don't yet understand about the process." Experiments involving control groups, groups that exercise, and cognitive health questionaries cannot lead them to prove cause and effect.

The only way to possibly find the cause and effect would involve a pre-exercise and post brain scans and determine how the long-term exercise helps with their different varieties of thinking. Although, Dr. Burzynska does offer some hope that in the recent advanced studies exercise "seems very likely" that it enables our brains to age better, even if, in Ms.Kotelko's case they start late in life.




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