A Critical Systematic Review of Current Evidence on the Effects of Physical Exercise on Whole/Regional Grey Matter Brain Volume in Populations at Risk of Neurodegeneration

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Background: Despite the intriguing potential of physical exercise being able to preserve or even restore brain volume (grey matter volume in particular)—a tissue essential for both cognitive and physical function—no reviews have so far synthesized the existing knowledge from randomized controlled trials investigating exercise-induced changes of the brain’s grey matter volume in populations at risk of neurodegeneration. Our objective was to critically review the existing evidence regarding this topic. Methods: A systematic search was carried out in MEDLINE and EMBASE databases primo April 2020, to identify randomized controlled trials evaluating the effects of aerobic training, resistance training or concurrent training on brain grey volume changes (by MRI) in adult clinical or healthy elderly populations. Results: A total of 20 articles (from 19 RCTs) evaluating 3–12 months of aerobic, resistance, or concurrent training were identified and included, involving a total of 1662 participants (populations: healthy older adults, older adults with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease, adults with schizophrenia or multiple sclerosis or major depression). While few studies indicated a positive effect—although modest—of physical exercise on certain regions of brain grey matter volume, the majority of study findings were neutral (i.e., no effects/small effect sizes) and quite divergent across populations. Meta-analyses showed that different exercise modalities failed to elicit any substantial effects on whole brain grey volume and hippocampus volume, although with rather large confidence interval width (i.e., variability). Conclusion: Altogether, the current evidence on the effects of physical exercise on whole/regional grey matter brain volume appear sparse and inconclusive, and does not support that physical exercise is as potent as previously proposed when it comes to affecting brain grey matter volume.

Original languageEnglish
JournalSports Medicine
Pages (from-to)1651-1671
Number of pages21
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

    Research areas

  • Aged, Brain/diagnostic imaging, Cognitive Dysfunction, Exercise, Gray Matter/diagnostic imaging, Humans, Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic, Risk Factors

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