Newswise – Tsukuba, Japan – Although exercise is known to improve cognitive function and mental health, the neurological mechanisms behind this connection are unknown. Now researchers from Japan have found evidence of the missing link between aerobic fitness and cognitive function.

In a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers at Tsukuba University showed that the spontaneous blink rate (sEBR), which reflects the activity of the dopamine system, can be used to understand the relationship between cognitive function and aerobic fitness.

The dopaminergic system is known to be involved in physical activity and exercise, and previous researchers have suggested that exercise-related changes in cognitive function could be mediated by activity in the dopaminergic system. To test this hypothesis, however, an activity marker was needed in this system, which researchers at Tsukuba University wanted to address.

“The dopaminergic system is linked to both executive function and motivated behavior, including physical activity,” says the study’s lead author Ryuta Kuwamizu. “We used sEBR as a non-invasive measure of the function of the dopaminergic system to test whether it could be the missing link between aerobic fitness and cognitive function.”

To do this, the researchers asked healthy participants to undergo an sEBR measurement, a test of cognitive function, and an aerobic fitness test. They also measured brain activity during the cognitive task using near-infrared functional spectroscopy.

“As expected, we found significant correlations between aerobic fitness, cognitive function and sEBR,” explains Professor Hideaki Soya, lead author. “When we examined these relationships further, we found that the association between higher aerobic fitness and improved cognitive function was mediated in part through dopaminergic regulation.”

In addition, the activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (l-DLPFC) during the cognitive task was the same or less in participants with higher sEBR compared to lower sEBR, although those with higher sEBR had a greater executive function and therefore a higher neural function seemed efficiency.

“Although previous studies have shown that aerobic fitness and cognitive function are correlated, this is the first to provide a neuromodulatory basis for this relationship in humans. Our data shows that dopamine plays an essential role in the relationship between aerobic fitness and cognition “says the first author Kuwamizu.

Given that neural efficiency in the l-DLPFC is a well-known feature of the dopaminergic system that has been observed in individuals with higher fitness and executive function, it is possible that neural efficiency in this region is partly related to the relationship between aerobic fitness and Executive function conveyed. In addition, physical inactivity can be related to dopaminergic dysfunction. This information offers new directions for research into the effects of fitness on the brain, which can lead to improved exercise plans. For example, an exercise that specifically focuses on improving dopaminergic function, specifically, can increase motivation, mood, and mental function.


The article “Spontaneous blink rate links lack of association between aerobic fitness and cognition” was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise
(DOI: 10.1249 / MSS.0000000000002590).