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With support from The Specialized Foundation, Stanford School of Medicine researchers Allan Reiss, MD, and Gavin Tempest, PhD, study brain activity during cycling exercise.

Q: Your research involves tracking changes in oxygenation in the brain, particularly during exercise. How do you measure that?

A: We use near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). It is a neuroimaging device that is lightweight and portable—it can even fit into a backpack. It uses what looks like a shower cap with lots of tiny light bulbs attached. Some of the light bulbs produce light and some detect light—in the near-infrared range. This machine is unique because exercise involves moving your body around (including your head) and there are few machines that let us measure the brain while we are active.

Q: Tell us about your recent study that was published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

A: In general, exercise makes people feel good and more alert—we hope that by using NIRS during exercise, we can find out what might be happening in the brain that influences our behavior. When we exercise and move around, we literally get a rush of blood to the head. This means that lots of oxygen is available—which is fuel for our brain. Before doing our study, we didn’t know if we could use NIRS to track changes in oxygen in specific parts of the brain that control our actions and behaviors while exercising. So, in our recent study, we compared brain activity (during a memory and hand movement task while cycling at a low, medium, and hard intensity). We showed that parts of the brain linked to memory and hand movement were active during low and medium cycling-exercise. As well, the areas of the brain that were active during the tasks were also active at rest (i.e., when sitting still). These findings mean that we can use NIRS to look at which areas of the brain are active during low and medium intensity cycling to help us figure out how exercise influences the way we think, feel, and behave.

Q: What role does philanthropy play in your research?

A: Philanthropy often provides the first step in uncovering a novel line of inquiry which can then be developed into a bigger idea and sometimes future funding. Our project at Stanford School of Medicine was possible because of a generous gift from The Specialized Foundation. The Specialized Foundation’s mission is to use cycling as a tool to promote academic success in children and adolescents and they fund both school-based and medical-based research. Once we had set up the project, I was eligible for and received a fellowship from the Stanford Maternal and Child Health Research Institute, which is also supported by donors. I am grateful to donors for supporting my work and I know that participants and their families are really grateful and happy to be involved.

Q: You are an exercise neurophysiologist. That’s so unique! Why did you choose to pursue this area of research focus?

A: When I was growing up, I swam six days per week. When I moved away to University to study Neuroscience, I stopped. I hadn’t realized how important swimming—or being physically active—was, so I started running (as a poor student I could no longer afford the pool fees). I specifically became interested in how exercise affects the brain and the way we think and feel. I started a PhD looking at a neural basis of affective responses (feel good/feel bad responses) during exercise at different intensities. This was when I learned about NIRS and started using it during exercise. My background using NIRS in exercise physiology has been the gateway for me being able to work in different laboratories internationally (UK, Australia, France, Russia, and now the US) to investigate how exercise influences the way that we think. Now my favorite activities are long-distance running and cycling. It is when I am exercising that I usually think of my next research idea.

Q: What are the next steps and potential benefits of this research?

A: The study we have just completed lays the groundwork for the use of NIRS to measure brain activity linked to specific skills (like working-memory) during exercise. This means we can compare how exercise influences such skills differently between individuals. In our current work, we are interested to learn how exercise might help to improve symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In general, we know that exercise can improve skills such as working-memory and inhibition, but we do not know if improvements of these skills will occur in children and adolescents with ADHD, and ultimately lead to better sustained attention and reduced distractibility. It would be great if we showed that regular exercise could help to manage symptoms of ADHD in some children with the diagnosis.

Editor’s note: We are thrilled to share that The Specialized Foundation has given Dr. Reiss’ lab another gift of $50,000 to continue research into brain activity during exercise. Stay tuned for more exciting updates!

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