The hippocampus experiences structural and functional decline with age and is a critical region for memory and many cognitive processes. Exercise is beneficial for the aging brain and shows preferential benefits for hippocampal volume, activation, and memory-related cognitive processes. However, research thus far has primarily focused on the effects of exercise on long-term volumetric changes in the hippocampus using structural MRI. Critically, microstructural alterations within the hippocampus over short time intervals are associated with neuroplasticity and cognitive changes that do not alter its volume but are still functionally relevant. However, it is not yet known if microstructural neuroplasticity occurs in the hippocampus in response to a single session of exercise.
We used a within subject-design to determine if a 30-minute bout of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise altered bilateral hippocampal diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) measures in healthy older adults (n=30) compared to a seated rest control condition.
Significantly lower fractional anisotropy (FA) and higher mean diffusivity (MD) were found after exercise relative to seated rest within the bilateral hippocampus, and this effect was driven by higher radial diffusivity (Dr). No significant differences in axial diffusivity (Da) were observed.
These findings suggest that a single exercise session can lead to microstructural alterations in the hippocampus of healthy older adults. These differences may be associated with changes in the extracellular space and glial, synaptic, and dendritic processes within the hippocampus. Repeated microstructural alterations resulting from acute bouts of exercise may accumulate and precede larger volumetric and functional improvements in the hippocampus.