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Matthew Pontifex: Exercise and the Connection to Cognition

Child Health Day, Oct. 5, 2015  

Matthew Pontifex made news when he showed for the first time that kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can better drown out distractions after a single bout of exercise.

He brought those findings from his dissertation with him when he joined the MSU faculty in 2012. With each of his studies, he never loses focus on where the research may have the biggest impact: schools.

“Schools are in a tough position, trying to do more with less,” said Pontifex, assistant professor of kinesiology. “They are making decisions about physical activity time, but they still don’t really have evidence to support or change their policies.”

In the case of students with ADHD—a common disorder among children with a growing diagnosis rate—teachers sometimes remove recess as a consequence for misbehavior. “However, what our research would suggest is that doing that actually may end up punishing the teachers,” Pontifex says.

In the Health Behaviors and Cognition Laboratory, Pontifex and his graduate assistants ask research subjects to, for example, walk briskly on a treadmill or read while seated before having them perform various mental tasks. They measure electrical activity in the brain through electroencephalography (EEG) caps. Participants often sit in the “egg chair” while playing a computer game that challenges them to sort through visual stimuli.

The work on ADHD has expanded recently to explore how different forms of exercise affect kids’ ability to pay attention as well as adapt to mistakes they make. Aerobic exercise is often easiest to do in lab settings, but kids in schools that still offer physical education don’t always spend time running. So Pontifex has added single bouts of activity (20 minutes each) focused on coordination and resistance to his research. The team also plans to replicate their studies with children who have autism and with individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders.

Memory is another cognitive skill needed to be successful in school, and research shows physical activity may affect our ability to remember things. Pontifex is studying this phenomenon as well. With Kimberly Fenn of the MSU Department of Psychology, he is training students on a cognitive task in the morning, then testing them on the same material 12 hours later. Students wear a monitor to measure their activity throughout the day. They hope to replicate the study with school-age children after piloting it with undergraduates.

“If a child learns something during the day, but then is forced to be sedentary, does that affect their ability to remember?” Pontifex asks. “Are we teaching them the same things over again because we don’t allow them to be active?”

Blood flow and the brain

Matt Pontifex is now leading a research team exploring a lesser-understood aspect of exercise: blood flow to the brain. The group received a $400,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to test the assumption that physical activity improves cognition because of increased blood flow, or if other mechanisms are in play, such as increases in connectivity among regions of the brain. Partners include Jodene Fine, school psychology faculty member in the College of Education, David Zhu of the Department of Radiology at MSU and Michelle Voss of the University of Iowa.

– Photo: Sitting in the “egg chair,” kinesiology senior Anthony Weiss wears an EEG cap used to measure brain activity while playing a game that measures mental skills such as the ability to stay focused.

– Lauren Ebelt & Nicole Geary in New Educator magazine, Fall 2014

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