UMD brain study measures effects of exercise

By Ed Vilade

Resident Writer

For decades, medical science told us that the number of brain cells with which we begin our adult life is finite; that brain function either stays the same or diminishes as we age. It turns out, that may not be true.

New brain cells can possibly be formed in some areas of the brain, and how all of our brain cells change can be affected positively by external factors such as exercise. Riderwood is helping the University of Maryland conduct a major study of exercise and the aging brain. It is already underway, and Dr. J. Carson Smith, who is heading up the study, would like to increase our involvement.

Dr. Smith, an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, is interested in the effect of exercise in combating Alzheimer’s disease. He has led several studies that have shown that exercise can stimulate areas of the brain that control cognition and memory.

“There are different types of memory,” he says. “There is working memory, such as remembering phone numbers; and episodic memory, remembering life events such as marriage, graduation, vacations and so on. Moreover, there is semantic memory, which is related to our memory of the world, such as knowing what a chair is when you see many different types of chairs. Semantic memory is often the first type of memory to fade with the onset of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.”

Dr. Smith and others had conducted a study in 2013 showing that a 12-week program of walking on a treadmill had a positive effect on the portions of the brain that control semantic memory. After 12 weeks, those areas of the brain were quieter, indicating that they had become more efficient in processing semantic memory.

Another study tested the impact of a single session of exercise. They selected 26 healthy men and women aged between 55 and 85, who had no severe memory problems to undergo two sessions of study. One group rested quietly, and another rode stationary bikes for 30 minutes. Then, while they lay inside an MRI machine, they were asked to identify famous names, interspersed among not-famous names.

The scientists had expected that the areas of the brain controlling semantic memory would be quieter after the exercise, but that did not happen. Instead, they were much more active. That was puzzling at first, says Dr. Smith, but then they realized that they were seeing the beginning of a training response, analogous to what happens with muscles under exercise. Neuroplasticity — changes in the wiring of the brain and perhaps the birth of new brain cells — was occurring.

This finding led to an NIH grant and the expanded study, which has begun at Riderwood. 10 to 12 people are now involved on campus. The study has a goal of testing 152 people in all.

“We have been recruiting at other locations,” said Dr. Smith, “but Riderwood is ideal because of the high-density of qualifying residents and the proximity to the UMD campus.”

The study is seeking participants aged 60 to 89, who are generally healthy but not currently in exercise programs; who can walk at least 30 feet unassisted and who have never had brain surgery. They must be able to undergo an MRI and complete other baseline tests over three visits. The program involves six months of supervised exercise classes four days a week, on-campus at Riderwood, plus three follow-up visits.

Those interested should call Naomi Arnold at the Department of Kinesiology, (301) 405-2574, email or visit the website at

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