White matter plasticity in healthy older adults: The effects of aerobic exercise

Andrea Mendez Colmenares, Michelle W. Voss, Jason Fanning, Elizabeth A. Salerno, Neha P. Gothe, Michael L. Thomas, Edward McAuley, Arthur F. Kramer, Agnieszka Z. Burzynska

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


White matter deterioration is associated with cognitive impairment in healthy aging and Alzheimer's disease. It is critical to identify interventions that can slow down white matter deterioration. So far, clinical trials have failed to demonstrate the benefits of aerobic exercise on the adult white matter using diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Here, we report the effects of a 6-month aerobic walking and dance interventions (clinical trial NCT01472744) on white matter integrity in healthy older adults (n = 180, 60–79 years) measured by changes in the ratio of calibrated T1- to T2-weighted images (T1w/T2w). Specifically, the aerobic walking and social dance interventions resulted in positive changes in the T1w/T2w signal in late-myelinating regions, as compared to widespread decreases in the T1w/T2w signal in the active control. Notably, in the aerobic walking group, positive change in the T1w/T2w signal correlated with improved episodic memory performance. Lastly, intervention-induced increases in cardiorespiratory fitness did not correlate with change in the T1w/T2w signal. Together, our findings suggest that white matter regions that are vulnerable to aging retain some degree of plasticity that can be induced by aerobic exercise training. In addition, we provided evidence that the T1w/T2w signal may be a useful and broadly accessible measure for studying short-term within-person plasticity and deterioration in the adult human white matter.

Original languageEnglish
Article number118305
StatePublished - Oct 1 2021


  • Aerobic exercise
  • Aging
  • Clinical trial
  • Plasticity
  • White matter


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