Exercise Therapy and Brain Networks: Implications for Alzheimer's Disease (2019-2020)


Because Alzheimer’s is a disease with both genetic and environmental causes, considerable research has focused on environmental factors including lifestyle and nutrition as potential therapeutic interventions that might delay or prevent the disease. Recent advances are providing clinical evidence for the efficacy of exercise in preserving brain function in aging humans, and studies have revealed that physically active individuals have a lower risk of cognitive decline.

Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women, and researchers have found that it is likely that the loss of ovarian function during the 5-10 years preceding the onset of menopause contributes to the higher risk in women. If exercise has the potential to lower women’s chances of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, new research needs to be done to determine the effect of exercise or lack of exercise on females at risk for Alzheimer’s.

Project Description

This Bass Connection project will use imaging technology along with analysis of neuropathology and behavior to examine how genetics and environment modify risk for Alzheimer’s disease in a female mouse model.

The project team will compare mice with the human proteins, which develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s, with mice with the human proteins, which are not at risk. The goal is to determine whether menopause accelerates disease progression and whether exercise during the menopause transition can mitigate this risk.

By tracking and comparing changes in brain structure with disease progression and by correlating these changes with pathological indicators, team members will test the validity of mouse models. This is a critical step in mouse modeling of a human brain disease where cross-comparison is needed to translate findings to human disease.

Team members will examine Alzheimer’s risk factors and potential therapies and learn how genes and environment contribute to human disease. Along with the laboratory-based and data-driven empirical work, the team will explore how inherent characteristics and acquired life experience contribute to health and disease. There will also be an imaging and visualization component focused on network analysis, based on integrating MRI with behavioral data.

To learn more about inherent and acquired characteristics, as well as sexuality, sex and gender, team members will also enroll in Sex/Gender – Nature/Nurture: Intersections of Biology and Society (NEUROSCI 278).

Anticipated Outputs

Science publication-style report; peer-reviewed publication; computational and statistical models including collected data; public presentation providing the science behind exercise’s therapeutic benefits, with a special focus on women’s health

Student Opportunities

Ideally, the team will include 3-5 undergraduates and 1-2 graduate students from the departments of Neuroscience, Biology, Computer Science and Statistics or students with web-development and programming skills, neuroscience backgrounds and skills in large dataset analysis. Students with some expertise in brain imaging technology would also be especially valuable to the research team. Research experience with animal subjects, or a scholarly interest in exercise physiology or neurodegenerative disease would also be of great benefit. The team is open to additional learner levels if graduate students, residents or postdocs with these skills are interested and available.

The team-based approach is facilitated by weekly lab meetings that will include Drs. Badea and Williams. Students are encouraged to present new data, discuss roadblocks and describe findings from relevant research articles. Janai Williams will serve as project manager.

Team members will have the opportunity to:

  • Gain experience in conducting state-of-the-art, hands-on research in the field of integrative and systems-level neuroscience, including immunohistochemistry and mouse brain imaging
  • Use their skills in computation, programming, statistics and analysis to collect, analyze and compare brain imaging data from mouse models to human brain imaging from Alzheimer’s patients
  • Learn about the ethics of working with rodents and the value of animal research to study human disease
  • Participate in and contribute to publications and posters to present findings to the research community and to clinical consumers
  • Learn how basic science is translated into therapeutic interventions.


Fall 2019 – Summer 2020

  • Fall 2019: Complete the course Sex/Gender – Nature/Nurture; begin a Neuroscience practicum or independent study to learn basic research methods and collect data
  • Spring 2020: Start background reading and hands-on laboratory work; collect and analyze data
  • Summer 2020: Complete data collection and focus on analysis; develop project website and outreach presentation (approximately 40 hours per week for 8 weeks)


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team, Exercise Therapy and Brain Health: Implications for Alzheimer’s Disease and Aging (2018-2019).


Image: Jogging on a bright November morning, by Ed Yourdon, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Jogging on a bright November morning, by Ed Yourdon.

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Alexandra Badea, School of Medicine-Radiology*
  • Carol Colton, School of Medicine-Neurology
  • Christina L. Williams, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience*
  • Ara Wilson, Arts & Sciences