Is there a link between working memory and physical exercise?

There have been numerous studies that make a link between physical exercise and learning, but this new study looks a bit deeper as it shows a positive relationship between the brain network associated with working memory — the ability to store and process information relevant to the task at hand — and healthy traits such as higher physical endurance and better cognitive function. (note: relationship doesn’t necessarily mean causal relation…) But it does seem mens sana in corpore sano.

From the press release:

These traits were associated with greater cohesiveness of the working memory brain network while traits indicating suboptimal cardiovascular and metabolic health, and suboptimal health habits including binge drinking and regular smoking, were associated with less cohesive working memory networks.

This is the first study to establish the link between working memory and physical health and lifestyle choices.

The results of the study will be published online in Molecular Psychiatry.

The research team took brain scans of 823 participants in the Human Connectome Project (HCP), a large brain imaging study funded by the National Institutes of Health, while they performed a task involving working memory, and extracted measures of brain activity and connectivity to create a brain map of working memory. The team then used a statistical method called sparse canonical correlation to discover the relationships between the working memory brain map and 116 measures of cognitive ability, physical and mental health, personality, and lifestyle choices. They found that cohesiveness in the working memory brain map was positively associated with higher physical endurance and better cognitive function. Physical traits such as high body mass index, and suboptimal lifestyle choices including binge alcohol drinking and regular smoking, had the opposite association.

“Working memory accounts for individual differences in personal, educational, and professional attainment,” said Sophia Frangou, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Working memory is also one of the brain functions that is severely affected by physical and mental illnesses. Our study identified factors that can either support or undermine the working memory brain network. Our findings can empower people to make informed choices about how best to promote and preserve brain health.”

Abstract of the study:

Working memory (WM) is a central construct in cognitive neuroscience because it comprises mechanisms of active information maintenance and cognitive control that underpin most complex cognitive behavior. Individual variation in WM has been associated with multiple behavioral and health features including demographic characteristics, cognitive and physical traits and lifestyle choices. In this context, we used sparse canonical correlation analyses (sCCAs) to determine the covariation between brain imaging metrics of WM-network activation and connectivity and nonimaging measures relating to sensorimotor processing, affective and nonaffective cognition, mental health and personality, physical health and lifestyle choices derived from 823 healthy participants derived from the Human Connectome Project. We conducted sCCAs at two levels: a global level, testing the overall association between the entire imaging and behavioral–health data sets; and a modular level, testing associations between subsets of the two data sets. The behavioral–health and neuroimaging data sets showed significant interdependency. Variables with positive correlation to the neuroimaging variate represented higher physical endurance and fluid intelligence as well as better function in multiple higher-order cognitive domains. Negatively correlated variables represented indicators of suboptimal cardiovascular and metabolic control and lifestyle choices such as alcohol and nicotine use. These results underscore the importance of accounting for behavioral–health factors in neuroimaging studies of WM and provide a neuroscience-informed framework for personalized and public health interventions to promote and maintain the integrity of the WM network.

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