Sound mind, sound body—the mantra of the ancient Greeks—continue to appear to be right on target. Previous studies have suggested that children with higher levels of aerobic fitness show greater brain volumes of gray matter, the outer surface tissue of the brain important for memory and learning. They’ve also shown a relationship between fitness and the integrity of white matter—the interior neural connectors wiring the grey matter together—in older adults.
And now, a new study from the University of Illinois has made the same connection for white matter in children, which sort of makes sense. The brain continues developing well into most people’s 20s, so it would stand to reason if physical fitness affects the brain, it’d have the same impact, if not a greater one, on a developing brain.
The Illinois team looked at five white-matter tracts in the brains of 24 participants using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI. DIT analyzes water diffusion into tissues, and for white matter, less diffusion means the tissue is more fibrous and compact.
And you want your neurons to be fibrous and compact.
After controlling for variables like socioeconomic status, the timing of puberty, IQ, or diagnosis of ADHD or other potential neural pitfalls, the study revealed significant fitness-related differences in the integrity of several white-matter tracts. These included the corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s left and right hemispheres; the superior longitudinal fasciculus, a pair of structures that connect the frontal and parietal lobes; and the superior corona radiata, which connect the cerebral cortex to the brain stem.
Yes, those are all pretty important, especially to attention and memory.
Of course, this is just one study and it only looked at a very small handful of kids, probably all from the same town. For any findings to grab any real support, they must be replicated time and again for a large number of subjects.
So they’re working on it.
The team is now two years into a five-year randomized, controlled trial to determine whether white-matter tract integrity improves in children who begin a new physical fitness routine and maintain it over time. The researchers are looking for changes in aerobic fitness, brain structure and function, and genetic regulation.
“Prior work from our laboratories has demonstrated both short- and long-term differences in the relation of aerobic fitness to brain health and cognition,” said Charles Hillman, kinesiology and community health professor at Illinois. “However, our current randomized, controlled trial should provide the most comprehensive assessment of this relationship to date.”
Just another reason to get your kids off their collective asses.
The study, “Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children,” was published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience by Hillman along with University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Laura Chaddock-Heyman and Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer.