Research corner

`Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children' by Chaddock-Heyman, L, Erickson, K I, Holtrop J L et al Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, August 2014 (Frontiers)

Extra time spent exercising could help students to beef up their brains, according to new research. Laura Chaddock-Heyman, a research associate in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US, led a group of academics in an experiment to find out how physical activity affects the structure of white matter in children's brains. White matter is important because it assists communication between different parts of the brain.

After taking part in tests to determine eligibility and fitness levels, 24 children aged 9 and 10 were recruited from the Illinois area. They were each given an MRI scan. The tests found that the fitter children had more fibrous and compact white matter in parts of the brain dealing with attention and memory than their peers who were less fit. More compact white matter is associated with faster and more efficient nerve activity.

However, the research did not look at whether the higher integrity of the white matter translated to benefits in cognitive function. Despite this, the authors urged educators to consider how physical activity could lead to better academic achievement.

"These results arrive at an important time, as children become increasingly unfit and sedentary, and educators reduce or eliminate opportunities for physical activity during the school day in favour of academic topics," the study says.

It also points out that previous research has linked white matter to achievement in maths. "The removal of fitness training opportunities during the school day may unintentionally have deleterious effects on white matter tracts, potentially reducing scholastic achievement," the researchers argue.

Sarah Cunnane

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