Objective: While initial research on the cognitive benefits of exergaming is promising, little is known about the neurobiological effects of exergaming. However, research on traditional physical exercise and cognition in older adults has identified brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1), and cortisol as potential biomarkers and mediators of cognitive function and healthy aging (Brown, Peiffer, &Martins, 2013). The current pilot study examined the interactive Physical and Cognitive Exercise System (iPACES™), a “neuroexergame” which synthesizes exergaming with mental exercises specifically designed to maximize cognitive benefits while exercising. Thus, it is expected that IGF1 and BDNF levels will increase, cortisol levels will decrease, and cognition will increase.
Methods: Participants in the study (n=30) were fifteen co-residing pairs of older adults who were trained to use the iPACES 3-5x/week for 14 weeks. Roughly half completed the full trial. Of these long-term exercisers saliva samples for pre, mid (6 week) and 3mo evaluations were available for seven participants. The cognitive assessments focused on executive function and included ratio scores for Stroop (A/C), Digit Span (B/F), and Color Trails (1/2). Saliva samples were collected and processed by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays probing for BDNF, IGF1, and cortisol.
Results: Pearson correlations were computed using the post-pre change scores for cognitive measures and biomarkers. Results demonstrated that among seven completers who exercised using the iPACES™ Memory Lane™ exergame, a moderate positive correlation was found between IGF1 and executive function (Digits Backwards ratio) after 6 weeks and 14 weeks (r = .76 and .45, respectively). Similarly, at 6 weeks, there was a moderate positive correlation between BDNF and executive function (Stroop ratio; r = .47), while a moderate negative correlation was found between cortisol and executive function (Stroop ratio; r = -.43).
Conclusions: This pilot research suggests that change in cognitive function over a period of exergaming is related to salivary biomarkers: cortisol, BDNF, and IGF1. These data provide preliminary evidence that could bolster recommendations by clinicians who encourage older adults to partake in either exergames or both physical and cognitive exercises to prevent cognitive decline and promote healthy aging in the brain.