Researchers report cognitive effects of aerobic exercise on persons with significant memory loss caused by traumatic brain injury

Carly L.A. Wender, PhD
Dr. Wender is a postdoctoral fellow in the
Center for Traumatic Brain Injury Research at
Kessler Foundation.

Pilot study provides proof-of-concept data for potential benefits of aerobic cycling exercise on cognitive function in individuals with traumatic brain injury-related memory impairment

East Hanover, NJ. January 24, 2022. A pilot study by a team of rehabilitation researchers showed that 12 weeks of supervised moderate aerobic cycling may improve memory and processing speed in individuals with disabling cognitive deficits caused by traumatic brain injury. The study, the first of its kind in the brain injury population, was published online in Neurocase on October 27, 2021. The article, “The preliminary effects of moderate aerobic training on cognitive function in people with TBI and significant memory impairment: A proof-of-concept randomized controlled trial,” (doi: 10.1080/13554794.2021.189990964)  was authored by Carly L.A. Wender, PhD, Brian M. Sandroff, PhD, Denise Krch, PhD, Glenn Wylie, DPhil, Nancy Chiaravalloti, PhD, and John DeLuca, PhD, of Kessler Foundation, and Christopher M. Cirnigliaro, PhD, and Jill Wecht, PhD, of the James J. Peters VA Medical Center, Bronx, New York.

Participants in the single-blind randomized control trial included 5 physically inactive individuals with a 10-year history of traumatic brain injury and significant memory impairment. They were randomized to 12-weeks of supervised moderate aerobic cycling exercise (intervention), or 12 weeks of stretching and toning exercise (control). All participants underwent neuropsychological tests of memory and processing speed and structural neuroimaging studies of the brain before and after their 12-weeks of exercise.

“Compared with controls, the exercise group demonstrated substantially greater improvements in auditory verbal learning and processing speed, and larger increases in volumes of their left hippocampus, left cerebellar cortex, and right cerebellar cortex,” reported lead author Dr. Wender, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Traumatic Brain Injury Research at Kessler Foundation.  “We also found that large intervention effects favored the exercise group, which showed gains in processing speed and volume of the right thalamus.”

Global cognitive impairments, as seen after traumatic brain injury, present major treatment challenges for clinicians, according to Brian Sandroff, PhD, senior research scientist in the Center for Neuropsychology and Neuroscience Research at Kessler Foundation. “Because of their effects on multiple cognitive domains, exercise interventions, which are low cost, noninvasive, and readily available, are an attractive option to explore in this population,” he added.

Although this study is small and data are preliminary, this study is the first to look at cognitive function and morphological changes in the brain in response to exercise in people with traumatic brain injury related memory impairment. “Our results support the need to explore the relationships between exercise training, cognition, and functional and structural changes in the brain,” Dr. Sandroff summarized, “which may establish the path toward optimal protocols for clinical implementation.”
Funding: New Jersey Commission on Brain Injury Research CBIR13PIL013

For further information on rehabilitation research studies at Kessler Foundation, email [email protected]

About Kessler Foundation

Kessler Foundation, a major nonprofit organization in the field of disability, is a global leader in rehabilitation research that seeks to improve cognition, mobility, and long-term outcomes, including employment, for people with neurological disabilities caused by diseases and injuries of the brain and spinal cord. Kessler Foundation leads the nation in funding innovative programs that expand opportunities for employment for people with disabilities.

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