"Aging, Exercise, and Brain Plasticity"
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Kirk I. Erickson, PhD
Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh
Focus Area: Cross-Cutting
The benefits of exercise are widely known, but few scientists have made fundamental discoveries relating exercise to brain growth and the preservation of cognition. Kirk Erickson, Ph.D., is one of them. His research and scholarship focuses on understanding the changes in various aspects of cognition, and the supporting brain structure and function, across the lifespan. He has found that participation in moderate amounts of physical activity can significantly improve cognition and brain function in older adults. In short, older brains are still “plastic,” in that age-related patterns of deterioration can be reversed through interventions such as exercise. While he was still a graduate student, Erickson reported that fitness was associated with greater brain volume in adults age 55-79. Results of his groundbreaking research, the first of its kind, were published in 2003 in the Journal of Gerontology and subsequently cited more than 1000 times by other investigators. Erickson continued this line of research and, in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reported that supervised exercise over 12 months resulted in an increase in the size of the hippocampus.
Genetic factors, gender, and social circumstances also appear to affect brain health, according to Erickson. His team is currently examining how genetic predispositions interact with environmental factors (e.g., physical activity) to influence neurocognitive function in old age. Erickson also is collaborating with other researchers to understand the reasons women, and especially women with breast cancer, may undergo more rapid cognitive decline than their male counterparts. In pilot research being conducted at the Wilkin’s Community Center in Pittsburgh’s Edgewood neighborhood, Erickson is exploring the potential value of an exercise regimen in African Americans, who have a 4-times increased risk over Caucasians in developing dementia.
- Identify the interplay between moderate-intensity exercise intervention dosing and factors within the patients' control that
improve cognitive health
- Understand MRI-measured biomarkers of brain health, and whether biomarker changes are dose dependent
- Understand how the physiologic use of exercise changes the nervous system, heart, and metabolism and mediates improvements
in the brain and in cognition
- Understand how individual differences such as age and genetics affect the exercise-induced improvements in the brain and cognition
ABOUT DR. ERICKSON
Dr. Erickson has been globally recognized for his contribution to the field of exercise neurobiology. In 2016 he was invited to participate in a U.S. Health and Human Services advisory committee to produce the 2018 edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. In addition to his role as associate professor, Erickson holds appointments within the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition and Center for Neuroscience. He is associated with the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center and AD Research Center. He also is the director and principal investigator of the Brain Aging and Cognitive Health Lab. His work has been honored with the Pitt Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award, and he was named a fellow of the Academy of Behavioral Medicine as well as a UI Senior Beckman Fellow in 2014. He also is an issue specialist for the Global Council on Brain Health. In late 2016, Erickson was awarded a $21.8 million award from the National Institute on Aging to study exercise and brain health in 639 cognitively normal adults age 65 to 80 years. Investigating Gains in Neurocognition in an Intervention Trial of Exercise (IGNITE) is being conducted in collaboration with Northeastern University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Illinois.