Barnes Lab at forefront of examining anti-aging effects of exercise on the brain


At UW–Madison’s School of Education, innovation is a way of life. In our classrooms, in our research and even in our spare time, we are creating knowledge and seeking ways to improve and transform lives across fields as diverse as the arts, health and education.

In this issue of “Learning Connections,” we hope to pique your curiosity and deepen your appreciation of the School by spotlighting a sampling of the many ways in which faculty, staff and students are developing creative programs, conducting leading-edge research and advancing innovative tools — all of which can help us better address the many challenges of the modern world.

Barnes Lab at forefront of examining anti-aging effects of exercise on the brain

The benefits of various forms of exercise are both far-reaching and well known by most in the general public.

Studies have consistently shown that exercising reduces the risk for ailments like cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes, strengthens bones and muscles, helps control weight and can even improve one’s mood.

LC Cover Fall 2017And now, there is a growing body of research examining how the anti-aging effects of exercise may blunt cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, in aging adults.

“It wasn’t that long ago when I’d apply for funding for this type of research and I’d get a lot of critical reviews because people were having a very hard time understanding how the cardiovascular system could affect the brain,” says UW–Madison’s Jill Barnes, an assistant professor with the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology. “Many people researching Alzheimer’s and other cognitive declines weren’t interested in the cardiovascular system.”

The Barnes Lab of the Bruno Balke Biodynamics Laboratory is working on several projects investigating the underlying mechanisms associated with age-related changes in cardiovascular and cognitive health.

Such research is increasingly important as it’s estimated that by the year 2030 more than 20 percent of the U.S. population will be over the age of 65. Advancing age is associated with an increased risk for dementia and a decrease in cognitive function that ultimately impacts quality of life. The Barnes Lab’s work on understanding potential adverse effects of aging on brain blood flow and cognition could help lead to effective strategies to mitigate the effects on the population.

One of Barnes’ current projects is being supported by the National Institutes of Health and includes a sequence of experiments designed to take a look at the mechanistic link between blood vessels and blood flow to the brain, and cognition. The team has worked with 120 participants, who regularly exercise or who do not exercise at all, to see how blood vessels in their brain respond to different mental and physical challenges.

The researchers monitor everything from blood pressure to the intensity and velocity of blood flow in the brain using Doppler technology. The team uses ultrasound machines to view the response of arteries and also a magnetic resonance imaging — or MRI — machine to collect images showing how and where blood is flowing in the brain.

Jill Barnes
“In the last five years, this type of research has really taken off,” Barnes says of examining potential links between vascular health, blood flow and cognitive decline. “We’re seeing how someone with high blood pressure during middle age has more damage to brain tissue compared to someone with lower blood pressure, for example. We’re also finding interesting results that show a relationship between mid-life cardiovascular risk profile and the potential for cognitive decline in later years.”

One of the more interesting aspects of her current research, says Barnes, is the range of physical and mental health of the participants age 50-and-over.

“There is so much variability — not only in their physiology and how they respond to various tests — but in their lifestyle and medical history,” says Barnes. “It’s very eye opening. We’re constantly trying to tease out what is actually happening in an aging human and what are the truly important environmental and lifestyle factors we need to be paying attention to.”

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