Research Study Abstract

Is Cognitive Training More Effective When Conducted After Physical Exercise?

  • Published on March 10, 2019

Acute increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor in plasma following physical exercise relates to subsequent learning in older adults

Gradual decline of certain cognitive abilities, including conceptual reasoning, memory, and processing speed, is a normal part of the aging process. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that plays an essential role in neuronal plasticity, which is critical to learning and memory. Decreased levels of BDNF have been associated with neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Huntington’s disease.

Because physical activity (PA) has been shown to increase levels of BDNP, a team of researchers from Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm University, and the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences hypothesized that cognition in older adults would benefit more from cognitive training conducted after, rather than before, physical exercise.

To test this theory, they conducted a randomized-controlled trial on a sample of healthy participants between the age of 65 and 75. Participants completed a 12-week behavioral intervention that involved either physical exercise immediately before cognitive training, physical exercise immediately after cognitive training , physical exercise only, or cognitive training only. Accelerometry data was captured with a hip-worn ActiGraph GT3X+ for 7 days before the first study visit to determine the participants’ usual pattern of movement. The ActiGraph devices were deployed again during the last 7 days of the intervention to identify any potential changes to movement patterns due to intervention engagement.

Contrary to the hypothesis, study results showed that the average results of cognitive training did not differ depending on the order of the intervention. However, on the individual level, those with greater increases in plasma BDNF after PA exhibited greater cognitive gains when each cognitive training session was preceded by physical exercise.

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  • Jonna Nilsson 1
  • Örjan Ekblom 2
  • Maria Ekblom 2
  • Alexander Lebedev 1, 3
  • Olga Tarassova 2
  • Marcus Moberg 2
  • Martin Lövdén 1


  • 1

    Aging Research Center, Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

  • 2

    Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden

  • 3

    Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden


Scientific Reports / Nature Research


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