Exercise Therapy and Brain Health: Implications for Alzheimer's Disease and Aging (2018-2019)


Physical activity and exercise have emerged as important factors associated with lower risks of cognitive decline in normal aging and neurodegenerative disease. Recent advances are providing clinical evidence for the efficacy of exercise in preserving brain function in humans and devising novel therapeutic strategies that include exercise for treating neurological conditions. However, despite evidence for sex differences in the effects of exercise on cognition and brain physiology, few studies have focused on the molecular and cellular mechanisms through which exercise differentially affects the male and female brain, and few exercise therapies have optimized programs for men and for women.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will explore the molecular and cellular effects of exercise on brain neuroanatomy and function using a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. Team members will also have an opportunity to observe how exercise therapy is conceptualized and implemented in a clinical setting and to learn how inherent characteristics (nature) and acquired life experience (nurture) contribute to health and disease.

The project team will investigate the ability of exercise to delay or attenuate neurodegeneration and cognitive decline using a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. Team members will use a new mouse model of female aging that includes menopause in an Alzheimer’s model mouse to assess the ability of exercise at specific stages of a female’s life to delay or prevent the development of Alzheimer’s neuropathology and cognitive decline. The team will explore the cellular and molecular mechanisms that mediate the effects of exercise on the brain and periphery (e.g., skeletal muscle and heart), focusing on neuroprotection from cognitive aging, neurodegeneration and neurological injury. This lab-based work will continue throughout the project.

Team members will also have the opportunity to observe exercise programs at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, interact with participants and instructors, learn about the development of exercise therapy programs, develop a research question using existing data and take on a data analysis project.

Student team members will also take the Bass Connections Fall 2018 course, Sex/Gender–Nature/Nurture: Intersections of Biology and Society (unless they have taken the course already). They will work together on a group paper and presentation related to the theme of sex/gender in brain health and disease.

Anticipated Outcomes

Report and/or poster on lab-based research, to be submitted to a science meeting and eventually included in a peer-reviewed publication; research paper with findings from data analysis project, poster for VA Research Day and/or patient testimonials;; webpage for Exercise and the Brain Interest Group that links members of the community to updates on exercise-related research and events


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019  

  • Fall 2018: Take part in NEUROSCI 278 course; begin weekly team meetings; observe exercise training at VA hospital; begin social media outreach and/or develop research question and data analysis of human exercise studies (approx. 4 hours/week); continue lab research as part of senior thesis project (optional for continuing members) or do a neuroscience practicum for half credit (optional for new members)
  • Spring 2019: Engage in collaborative neuroscience research in labs of Drs. Williams and Finch; weekly team meetings; continue background reading, lab work and research paper writing
  • Summer 2019: 4 undergraduates engage in continued laboratory research (40 hours/week for 8 weeks)

Team Outcomes to Date

A Translational Approach to a Therapeutic Intervention with Physical Activity for Neurological/Cognitive Dysfunction (poster by Irene Koc, Syed Ameen Ahmad, Janai Williams, Elizabeth Finch, Katherine Hall, Christina L. Williams, presented at Bass Connections Showcase, Duke University, April 17, 2019)

See related teams, Exercise Therapy and Brain Networks: Implications for Alzheimer's Disease (2019-2020) and  Exercise as Therapy for Cognitive Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease (2017-2018).

Graphic of female person jumping rope

Team Leaders

  • Elizabeth A. Finch, School of Medicine-Medicine
  • Katherine Hall, School of Medicine-Medicine:Geriatrics
  • Christina L. Williams, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience

/graduate Team Members

  • Sara Maurer, Psychology-PHD
  • Janai Williams, Psychology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Syed Ahmad, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Caitlin Grant, Neuroscience (BS), Spanish (AB2)
  • Irene Koc, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Shayal Vashisth, Neuroscience (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Ara Wilson, Arts & Sciences-Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Durham VA Health Care System