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

Student Opportunities

By working alongside Drs. Williams and Finch, students will learn procedures for working with laboratory animals; behavioral and cognitive testing and exercise training of mice; brain dissection; slicing and immunohistochemistry; and procedures for analyzing gene expression in the brain.

By participating in the research of Dr. Hall, students will also gain a unique perspective on how exercise therapy is developed and put into practice for specific clinical populations.

The ideal team composition will include students with different backgrounds and levels of experience in neuroscience laboratory research, data analysis, programming and statistics. Undergraduates pursuing majors in neuroscience, biology, biomedical engineering, computer science and/or statistics are encouraged to apply. Interests or skills in the biological sciences, programming, statistical methods for large dataset analysis and/or web development would be helpful. Research experience with animal subjects and a scholarly interest in exercise physiology or neurodegenerative disease would also be of great benefit to the group. Interested trainees, graduate students, residents and postdocs are also encouraged to apply.

All student team members will enroll in the Fall 2018 course, NEUROSCI 278 Sex/Gender–Nature/Nurture: Intersections of Biology and Society.

This team-based approach will be facilitated by weekly lab meetings. Students will be encouraged to present new data, discuss roadblocks and describe findings from relevant new research articles. Graduate student Sara Maurer will serve as project manager along with an advanced undergraduate, master’s student or recent graduate of one of Duke’s master’s programs.

Students will be evaluated by their outcome measures, which may include research papers, posters and/or websites.


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)


Course credit (NEUROSCI 278) available in the fall semester; independent study or research practicum credit available in the spring semester; summer funding

See earlier related team, Exercise as Therapy for Cognitive Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease (2017-2018).

Faculty/Staff Team Members

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

Graduate Team Members

Sara Maurer, Psychology-PHD

Undergraduate Team Members

Syed Ahmad, Neuroscience (BS)
Caitlin Grant, Neuroscience (BS)
Emilia Grzesiak, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
Irene Koc, Neuroscience (BS)
Shayal Vashisth, Biology (BS), Global Health (AB2)

* denotes team leader


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