Research studies in Oxford are investigating how physical and mental exercise could prevent brain decline in older people.
The Cognitive Health in Ageing project (CHA) is recruiting healthy volunteers aged 60 or over to provide valuable insights into how the brain can adapt and change during ageing.
One of the key questions the five-year project will address is whether exercise slows brain degeneration or increases the brain’s ability to compensate.
Researchers hope new understanding will help improve exercise-based treatment programmes for people with early stage dementia.
Participants will take part in either a 12-week programme of physical exercise or a four-week programme of computer-based brain training tasks. Researchers will use MRI and MEG brain scans before and after the programmes to investigate the effects on brain function.
The project is supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Biomedical Research Centre a collaboration between Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust and researchers at the University of Oxford – and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.
The studies are led by Oxford University researchers based at the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity (OHBA) and the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB).
Dr Susannah Murphy, Head of the Affect and Cognition Group at OHBA, said: “In a population in which the number of individuals experiencing the devastating effects of dementia is increasing, it is vital we understand why and how brain function declines with age so that effective treatments can be developed.
“Recently, research has shown that both physical and mental exercise may play important roles in promoting healthy ageing of the brain, as well as having beneficial effects on general health and wellbeing. It is possible that they may even prevent the cognitive decline associated with neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.”
The studies are entering the next recruitment phase and are looking for volunteers aged 60 or over to take part in either the exercise or brain training arm of the project. Participants in both arms receive support from a dedicated team of professionals.
Volunteers in the brain-training group attend a series of sessions over four weeks at the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity, which is based at the Warneford Hospital. Sessions involve completing computer tasks and last around 45 minutes.
Participants in the physical exercise group receive a 12-week supervised exercise programme at the CLEAR unit in Oxford Brookes University Sports Centre. The CLEAR unit is a fitness studio designed specifically for people who rarely exercise and is run by experienced personal trainers.
Dr Claire Sexton, Post-Doctoral Researcher at FMRIB, Oxford University, said: “We hope that these studies will help us to understand the extent to which we can minimise cognitive decline in ageing with simple daily activities such as computer tasks or physical activity.
“The use of neuroimaging will help us to see what is changing in the brain as a result of these activities”.
Kay Herlihy, 69, from Oxford, took part in the exercise study after seeing an advert.
She said: “I wanted to lose a bit of weight and thought it would be a great way of getting a free personal trainer. I wasn’t an exercise person at all but since taking part I have bought an exercise bike and I have lost nearly a stone.
“It is such a worthwhile project and the research staff were lovely. They explained everything, there was no pressure and it was very relaxed. I would say “do it” to anyone thinking of taking part, it was great fun.”
Dr Jill Betts of Oxford University, Post-Doctoral Researcher on the exercise arm of the study, said: “The interest and enthusiasm of our participants is vital to the success of our project.
“We hope that the exercise programme is enjoyable and beneficial in terms of their own health and fitness as well as being useful to us in the context of our research. Our work could not go ahead without the commitment of these generous individuals.”