Art Kramer on the Link between Physical Fitness & Cognition

Scientist Interview: October 2011

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Art KramerThere are increases in the vascular structure of the brain that can support increased neuronal firing. Then finally even neurogenesis, or the increase in the number of neurons in very selective brain areas, particularly the hippocampus, which are then incorporated in networks and can help enhance memory at a number of levels. We also understand there are changes in mitochondria, changes in telomeres, etc.

Is there one change that starts off the cascade? Maybe but we wouldn't know what it is, but there are a multitude of changes down the line.

SW: What's the most challenging aspect of doing this kind of cognitive enhancement research?

It's team-based research. We don't do this alone and, in fact, it would be foolish to do so. When we do this kind of research we have teams of kinesiologists, exercise physiologists, physicists, bioengineers, psychologists, neuroscientists, cardiologists. So the hard part is putting together the teams, the right people, that allow us to address the multitude of issues related to these big questions that don't exist within one discipline, but exist across a multitude of disciplines. We're getting better at that, but we're still kind of new at it. And I'm the director of the Beckman Institute here at the University of Illinois. We've been doing this for about 22 years now, which is longer than most other researchers across the globe, but still we're learning.

SW: What achievement would you say has brought you the most satisfaction over the years?

I enjoy understanding the mechanisms underlying the basis of some of these effects, but maybe I even enjoy more, or at least as much, the ability to affect the lives of people in a positive way. So this kind of research is both basic in terms of understanding mechanisms, but it's also what NIH calls translational—what we used to call applied—in that it can have impact on people's lives.

SW: What would you tell the general public about your work?

"...I think we really need to start much earlier with physical activity and exercise."

A number of years ago when the Nature paper came out we had a little competition around here for a sound bite, and we had a number of Ph.D.'s competing, and at the time my eight-year-old daughter won, because USA Today published hers. That was "be smart, exercise your heart."

Physical activity and exercise is relatively straightforward and easy to do. It doesn't require a lot of money or fancy equipment. It's walking; it's bicycling, it's swimming. There is more than enough animal, human epidemiological data, human randomized controlled trials, that suggest you won't do any harm and you'll probably do some good, in terms of both decreasing the probability of getting a multitude of diseases—from heart attacks to strokes to osteoporosis, forms of cancer—and in the meantime you may enhance your memory and learning and a variety of other things.

SW: I have to ask this: what do you do yourself in terms of daily physical activity?

I do a variety of things. I was an extreme athlete for many years and, as a result, paid a price. So I don't run long distances any more. I ride a stationary bike and a regular bike; I use a rowing machine; I lift weights. I occasionally hang off of big walls—I'm a vertical wall climber. I kayak. I still do a variety of things.

SW: Which one of your current or future research projects most excites you at the moment?

We have a few projects that have been funded by the NIH and some funded by the Navy. Two of them funded by NIH are to extend some of our fitness training work to other situations, especially for people that are not that excited about exercise. One of the projects is with children, with 8 to 10 year olds. We've recently started an after-school program, two hours a day, five days a week, for a school term, to examine the effects of physical activity on kids' brains and cognition and school performance, so we can tie it to something real in kids' and parents' lives. The children play a variety of games that entail physical activity.

We found in a multitude of studies that there are structural differences in high-fit and low-fit kids' brains, in the hippocampus, in basal ganglia, and other regions that relate to better performance, to better school performance, aptitude tests, and so forth. We're running this randomized controlled trial in kids, which is exciting to me because I think we really need to start much earlier with physical activity and exercise. Given the way our society is changing, maybe too much technology that doesn't engender enough movement can be problematic.

In another recent study funded by NIH with older adults we've decided to try something a little different. We've worked on walking in the past. Our intervention for the next study, which will start in a month or two and take place over a few years, is to use a different kind of physical activity, which is also an intellectual activity, which is also a social activity—dance. That's one project I'm very excited about.End

Art Kramer, Ph.D.
Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Urbana, IL, USA

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ART KRAMER'S MOST CURRENT MOST-CITED PAPER IN ESSENTIAL SCIENCE INDICATORS:

Colcombe S, Kramer AF, "Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults: a meta-analytic study," Psychol. Sci. 14(2): 125-30, March 2003, with 399 cites. Source: Essential Science Indicators from Clarivate Analytics.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

  • Dr. Kramer has been named a Rising Star in Neurosciences & Behavior for the month of September 2011.

KEYWORDS: COGNITIVE TRAINING, PHYSICAL ACTIVITY, HUMAN PERFORMANCE, BRAIN FUNCTION, LEARNING, COGNITIVE ENHANCEMENT, PLASTICITY, BEHAVIORAL RESEARCH, FITNESS TRAINING, NEUROIMAGING, MRI, FMRI, BRAIN NETWORKS, CONTROLLED TRIAL, LONGITUDINAL TRIAL, AEROBIC EXERCISE, STRETCHING, TONING, COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY, FITNESS INTERVENTION, LINK, OLDER ADULTS, KIDS, STROOP TASK, GENERALIZED TRANSFER, NEUROTRANSMITTERS, NEUROTROPHINS, NEUROGENESIS, MITOCHONDRIA, TELOMERES, TEAMS, BRAIN STRUCTURE.

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