• A research proves that physical activity and environmental stimulation improve cognitive functions during aging

    January 23, 2014

    Researchers from the University of Oviedo decypher the changes that the brain experiences after being properly stimulated.

    From left to right, Marcelino Cuesta, Patricia Sampedro, Clara Zancada, Laudino López, Piedad Burgos, Begoña Díaz and Azucena Begega.

    Frequent and moderate physical activity, as well as environmental stimulation, slow down the cognitive deterioration brought about by aging. Researchers from the Department of Psychology of the University of Oviedo have proven that exercise and a proper cognitive, motor and social stimulation allow the brain to function more efficiently, with less energy consumption during the acquisition of memory tests.

    The work by the research team is conducted at the laboratory of Neurosciences, led by Dr. Jorge Luis Arias (Faculty of Psychology, INEUROPA), and has allowed the researchers to observe the underlying mechanisms of the brain in animal models (old Wistar rats).

    The research conducted on Wistar rats will lead to the development of drugs that mimic the effects of these type of interventions, as well as the creation of stimulation programs for old people that allows them to reduce the numerous cases of dementias, such as as Alzheimer's Disease or Parkinson's Disease.

    The researchers are trying to decypher these neurobiological mechanisms to contribute to the future design of drugs and behavioral interventions that are more effective against diseases like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. "If we are able to determine what changes are experienced by the brain after being subject to environmental stimulation or physical activity, we will be able to design drugs or stimulation programs for old people that mimic the effects on the brain", explains Patricia Sampedro, one of the researchers of the team, who is preparing her PhD Thesis on the preventive effects of physical and mental activity.

    Part of the research done by this team has shown a positive change in the cells that support the neurons, the astrocites, in the rats that have been subjected to this type of interventions. Moreover, they have proven that these animals react with less anxiety and adapt more quickly to new environments.

    The effects of the changes in the state of a dwelling

    The researchers have worked with several groups of animals that differ in their dwelling conditions at the laboratory. A portion of them were moved to big cages with numerous visual and sensorial stimuli that were changed weekly to assess the reactions to change and the exploration of novelties. Moreover, the animals practiced aerobic physical exercise 20 minutes a day with resting periods to avoid high levels of stress.

    After two months of this stimulation program, tests were conducted on the rats that had received the stimuli and those that had remained in the standard lab cages. The results of the study show that the former are able to acquire a memory test more quickly and with fewer errors, while their brain demands less energy during the task.

    Another discovery made by this group is focused on the cells that support the neurons, the astrocites, of the stimulated rats. They present longer and more complex branches that allow the rats to compensate the deficits caused by aging in the connections of the neurons. The adaptation of these animals to new environments is also quicker and less stressing, which may explain the increase in the expression of receptors of glucocorticoids, which are in charge of inhibiting the axis of stress.

    Research team

    • Azucena Begega Losa
    • Patricia Sampedro Piquero
    • Clara Zancada Menéndez
    • Marcelino Cuesta Izquierdo
    • Laudino López Álvarez
    • Piedad Burgos (lab technician)
    • Begoña Díaz (lab technician)