Joggin’ the Noggin: Towards a Physiological Understanding of Exercise-Induced Cognitive Benefits

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Abstract

This narrative review examines literature pertaining to possible physiological explanations for observed cognitive benefits stemming from improvements to cardiovascular fitness following chronic aerobic exercise. Studies regarding exercise and cardiovascular fitness, angiogenesis, neuroinflammation in relation to IGF-1 signalling, regulation of neurotrophins, neurogenesis and plasticity, cognitive training, are briefly described. We propose that current evidence points towards a mechanism by which cardiovascular fitness improvements act to promote long-term angiogenesis and cerebral circulation. This important adaptation allows for increased delivery and upregulation of neurotrophins along with supporting factors to the brain, particularly to the hippocampal neurogenic niche, following acute exercise bouts. We propose a sequential timeline and approximate time scale for this mechanism, describing how these stages generate increased support for neurogenesis and brain plasticity in combination with cognitive training to provide long-term cognitive benefits and protection against age-related cognitive decline. Influences from age, gender and other variables are considered, and methodological factors that could be utilised in future studies to further clarify the proposed model are discussed.

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