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Dr Flaminia Ronca, and Professor Mark Hamer, Chair in Sport and Exercise Medicine at the ISEH, recently published research which investigated whether a single bout of intense exercise could improve brain activity in the pre-frontal cortex, in participants who exhibit depressive symptoms. This was a collaborative project, conducted with Professor Paul Burgess and Dr James Crum from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and Prof Ilias Tachtsidis from UCL Engineering. Bringing together expertise from these various disciplines enabled the team to investigate their research question through cutting-edge technology, and under the leadership of the very best in their respective fields.

The pre frontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for executive function and emotion regulation, and its often less active in depressed individuals compared to the general population. Since exercise is hypothesised to improve activity in this area of the brain, the team investigated whether exercise could be beneficial in improving activation in a population with depressive symptoms.  

In the study, 106 volunteers completed a series of executive function tests (simple reaction time, inhibition, XN attending, working memory) before and after a VO2max test on a treadmill. Brain activity was measured during the cognitive tests using functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS).  

They compared brain activity before and after the 15–20 minute bout of exhaustive exercise. The outcome revealed that everyone’s performance improved on the cognitive tests, and brain activity in the prefrontal cortex was enhanced by exercise (compared to a control resting group, to account for learning effects). Depression seemed to attenuate this response, where individuals with stronger depressive symptoms exhibited a smaller response to exercise, indicating that there is a biological bases to these symptoms. The good news is that everyone improved, leading to the conclusion that exercise can indeed facilitate the engagement of executive functions in people with depressive symptoms.  

Dr Flaminia Ronca, said: This study provides promising insight into how exercise supports brain functioning in depression, bringing us closer to understanding how exercise interventions may be effectively implemented to support mental wellbeing. 

Read the published paper in Frontiers in Neuroergonomics.