Getting enough physical exercise helps our body stay in shape. But to what extent does it influence the various aspects of our mind, for example our spatial memory? Recent research has focused on clarifying the extent of this influence on spatial memory.
The team led by Florencia Rodríguez, a doctoral fellow from the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) in Argentina, carried out the study on 98 sedentary volunteers between the ages of 18 and 35.
The authors of the study, published in the academic journal iScience, were able to show that 25 minutes of physical activity improves spatial memory. The discovery is of great importance, since it could help in the design of strategies that improve this cognitive function, both in people with Alzheimer’s disease and in people with other neurodegenerative diseases.
How did they find out? The volunteers were asked, using spatial strategies, to collect two flags that were presented to them in very close positions. Then, the participant had to identify a third flag, located in the middle of the previous two, to study a phenomenon called pattern separation.
“Simultaneously, we also study how physical activity affects the memory consolidation phase, which is when memories are encoded in our neurons,” Rodríguez deepened in dialogue with the CTyS-UNLaM Agency. “So, after learning the position of the first two flags, a group of volunteers carried out an intense physical activity, with 25 minutes of stationary bicycle. The other only watched the video of a cycling race. And when we asked everyone to spatially identify the flag in the middle, the group that had been physically active was better able to separate memories from positions.”
As described by the doctoral fellow, the participants who said they used spatial cues to orient themselves in the environment were able to solve the task better than those participants who said they were guided by other strategies, such as their position, the number of turns they made in the environment or the shadow projected by the flags they had to memorize, among others.
The volunteers were sedentary people, with certain characteristics, such as age, lifestyle and substance use, and they completed a questionnaire to analyze the physical activity they performed in their daily tasks. The research team also carried out the experiment with an athletics group from the National University of the Center of the Province of Buenos Aires (UNICEN), who carried out intense physical activity five or more days a week for more than an hour, to support the results.
The results of the new study indicate that physical activity improves spatial memory. (Photo: Amanda Mills/CDC)
The project, which already had an earlier stage, arose from the joint work of two groups. On the one hand, the MediaLab of the Pladema Institute (belonging to the Scientific Research Commission and UNICEN), which has been working for several years with virtual reality simulators. On the other, researchers from the Technological Institute of Buenos Aires (ITBA) and experts in the area of neuroscience, who sought to take advantage of this type of technology to be able to carry out the same tests that they did to animals in laboratories, but, this time, in humans.
The experiments were possible because the scientists used an immersive virtual reality simulator called “Cave” (short for “Computer Assisted Virtual Environment”). Located in the MediaLab, it is a room where computer-generated images are projected on the walls and floor, with the possibility of recreating different types of scenarios.
“Being in a virtual environment, all participants perform the same test. Neither the weather, nor the changes in the landscape, nor the natural detractors of the real world have any influence on the experimentation. On the other hand, the environments can be managed according to the requirements of the test”, explained Rodríguez.
For example, the team could make the flags appear and disappear automatically, without intervention from a third party that could distract the participant. “And, being in a controlled environment, they also avoided the dangers of nature, such as the participant tripping over a stone, getting tired walking or going at different walking speeds, among others”, added the intern.
For the research team, virtual reality environments are a very valuable tool for carrying out these experiments in humans, especially because of the fields that remain to be investigated, such as reactions to different stimuli, the sensations they cause in human immersion and emotions.
“We continue to bet heavily on our research projects and continue building and growing with our wonderful multidisciplinary team. On the other hand, we have the support of the community, mainly our UNICEN students, who are always willing to participate in our tests and have fun. We love that the experiments arouse the curiosity of our students and motivate them to participate in scientific events and get involved in science and technology careers as professionals already trained in undergraduate studies”, Rodríguez concluded.
The authors of the work are Daniela Ramirez Butavand, María Florencia Rodríguez, María Cifuentes, Magdalena Miranda, Cristian García Bauza, Pedro Bekinschtein and Fabricio Ballarini. (Source: Nicolás Camargo Lescano (CTyS-UNLaM Agency))
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