Train for your multi-tasking brain

Physical activity is regularly touted as important in improving some of the processes associated with ageing, including brain function, memory and information processing. There has been a considerable amount of research indicating that higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness in older adults leads to higher executive function in the brain, which aids reasoning and problem solving skills.

A new study has gone one step further. A team of researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, found that dual-task processing in a core executive function brain region is associated with higher cardiorespiratory fitness and dual-task performance. This means that people with a higher level of cardiorespiratory fitness are more adept at managing multiple cognitive processes, which is particularly important as we age.

Under the guidance of Art Kramer, Beckman Institute director and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Illinois, the team studied the fitness levels and brain images of 128 older adults between the ages of 59 and 80. The researchers found that certain regions of the brain, particularly the anterior cingulate cortex, were stimulated more when performing two simultaneous tasks compared to just one.

Explaining the importance of specifically looking at dual-task performance, Chelsea Wong, a PhD student at the University of Illinois said, ‘It is a measure of executive function, which is required for multiple cognitive processes, such as working memory, task management, coordination, and inhibition’. Wong further explained that as people age, executive function declines, hence people with a higher level of cardiorespiratory fitness actually enhance their executive function performance behaviourally as well as through brain activation.

By analysing brain function while participants were completing two tasks, the researchers discovered that activation of the anterior cingulate cortex was directly associated with higher cardiorespiratory fitness. This can be particularly important in carrying out higher-level cognitive functions such as conflict monitoring and multitasking.

This finding is important as it suggests that we can improve our brain health by changing our lifestyle as we age.

Source: Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience