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The incredible shrinking hippocampus (and how to stop it)

September 27th, 2011

Over the last few years, a bunch of studies have built the case that aerobic exercise does something to keep your brain in good working order as you age — or perhaps more accurately, it does several good things for your brain. Last week, I blogged about a study showing that exercise stimulates the growth of new mitochondria in the brain. In the comments of that post, Seth Leon pointed out another new study — this one in the September issue of Neuropsychology — that links exercise to greater volume of the hippocampus, which in turn improves memory.

I’ve been particularly interested in the hippocampus ever since I wrote this article in The Walrus back in 2009, looking at suggestions that increased use of GPS navigation would lead to decreased volume of the hippocampus, where our direction-finding skills reside. And smaller hippocampi are associated with increased risk of age-related cognitive impairment. One of the researchers I spoke to worried that this is part of larger shift:

But Bohbot sees the decline in spatial thinking as part of a broader shift toward stimulus-response, reward-linked behaviour. The demand for instant gratification, for efficiency at all costs and productivity as the only measure of value — these sound like the laments of the nostalgist in the Age of the Caudate Nucleus. But here, they’re based on neuroscience. “Society is geared in many ways toward shrinking the hippocampus,” she says. “In the next twenty years, I think we’re going to see dementia occurring earlier and earlier.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken wrong turns since writing that article because of my stubborn refusal to use GPS unless absolutely necessary! But I digress…

Anyway, this new study, by researchers at the University of Illinois, looked at a group of 158 sedentary adults between 60 and 80 years old, to look for evidence for the following model:

The basic gist is straightforward: they hypothesize that fitness (as measured by a graded exercise test to exhaustion) predicts hippocampus size, which in turn predicts working memory, which in turn predicts how frequently you forget things. What’s new about this study is that they separately consider age, BMI, sex, physical activity, and education to see if any of them are skewing the results. Here’s what they find:

By and large, the data supports their hypothesis. There are a few wrinkles: for example, age, in addition to affecting fitness, also has a direct effect on hippocampus size. That means no matter how fit you are, your hippocampus is still getting smaller. Also, physical activity (that’s the PASE box) didn’t directly contribute to fitness — but that’s not surprising, because the volunteers had to be sedentary in order to be admitted to the study, so they all had roughly the same (lack of) physical activity.

Bottom line: aerobic fitness is good for the brain — and in particular, it’s good for the hippocampus. So maybe if I get enough exercise, I’ll start letting myself use that GPS navigation system.

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