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Children's brain development is linked to physical fitness
by Matthew - Monday, 6 December 2010, 10:23 AM

A new study carried out by scientists in America has found an association between physical fitness, brain structure and memory in children. The study found that fitter children have a bigger hippocampus and perform better on memory tests compared to their less-fit peers.

Children runningThe new study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the relative size of specific structures in the brain, including the hippocampus, amongst 49 children who were 9 and 10 years old.

The study was led by Professor Art Kramer from the University of Illinois. He commented: “This is the first study I know of that has used MRI measures to look at differences in the brain between kids who are fit and kids who aren’t fit. Beyond that, it relates those measures of brain structure to cognition.”

The study focused on the hippocampus, a structure tucked deep within the brain, because it is known to be important in learning and memory. Previous studies in older adults and in animals have shown that exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus. A bigger hippocampus is associated with better performance on spatial reasoning and other cognitive tasks.

To measure fitness in the present study, researchers measured how efficiently the subjects used oxygen while running on a treadmill. “This is the gold standard measure of fitness,” said Laura Chaddock, a doctoral student working on the study.

The physically fit children were “much more efficient than the less-fit children at utilising oxygen,” Kramer said.

When they analysed the MRI data, the researchers found that the physically fit children tended to have bigger hippocampal volume than their out-of-shape peers.

Furthermore, the children who were in better physical condition also did better on tests of relational memory – the ability to remember and integrate various types of information – than their less-fit peers.

If you remove hippocampal volume from the equation,” Chaddock said, “the relationship between fitness and memory decreases.” This suggests that it's the hippocampus that's responsible for boosting performance on the relational memory task.

The new findings suggest that interventions to increase childhood physical activity could have an important effect on brain development, Kramer said.

Sources: Sciencedaily.com (16th September 2010); Brain Research 2010 Oct 28;1358:172-83.

(Edited by Matthew - original submission Thursday, 21 October 2010, 10:21 AM)

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