Although exercise is known to enhance cognitive function and improve mental health, the neurological mechanisms of this link 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 from the University of Tsukuba revealed that spontaneous eye blink rate (sEBR), which reflects activity of the dopamine system, could be used to understand the connection between cognitive function and aerobic fitness.

The dopaminergic system is known to be involved in physical activity and exercise, and previous researchers have proposed that exercise-induced changes in cognitive function might be mediated by activity in the dopaminergic system. However, a marker of activity in this system was needed to test this hypothesis, something the researchers at the University of Tsukuba aimed to address.

“The dopaminergic system is associated with both executive function and motivated behavior, including physical activity,” says first author of the study Ryuta Kuwamizu. “We used sEBR as a non-invasive measure of dopaminergic system function 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 a measure of sEBR, a test of cognitive function, and an aerobic fitness test. They also measured brain activity during the cognitive task using functional near-infrared spectroscopy.

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

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