Ashleigh Smith
University of South Australia, Alliance for Research in Exercise, Nutrition and Activity (ARENA)
18 September 2018

By simply moving your body, your brain has the ability to change and re-organise its connections and potentially produce protective properties against many incurable diseases and conditions, including dementia.

In Australia there are more than 425,000 people living with dementia and this number is expected to increase to 1.1 million by 2056 1. At present, pharmaceutical options are ineffective at slowing dementia progression and are only moderately effective in improving symptoms. There is also a major (and growing) financial and social burden associated with this condition.

Considering the lack of successful pharmacological treatments, Dr Ashleigh Smith is investigating alternative options for delaying dementia through lifestyle modifications. Dr Ashleigh Smith is an early career neurophysiologist from the University of South Australia and her research is looking at optimising exercise levels, intensity and exercise environment for brain health in adults at risk of dementia.

According to Dr Smith’s research, engaging older adults in frequent aerobic exercise is one of the strongest and most cost-effective strategies that can delay the onset and slow down the progression of dementia. However, advice from practitioners and uptake is limited by an incomplete understanding of how exercise positively influences brain health.

‘The overarching aim of my NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Development Fellowship is to optimise exercise engagement for brain health in adults at risk of dementia’ explained Dr Smith.

Dr Smith uses sensitive cognitive assessment tools, cutting edge non-invasive brain stimulation and recording techniques, as well as novel activity analytical approaches as part of her research arsenal. These methods have helped Dr Smith discover that optimal cognitive performance is associated with daily activity patterns.

‘I have demonstrated that the best cognitive performance occurs in 50-80 year olds who spend 25 per cent of their day engaged in some form of physical activity’ said Dr Smith.

Together with NHMRC – ARC Dementia Research Development Fellow Dr Mitchell Goldsworthy they have extended this work by showing that daily activity patterns also influence global brain networks, promoting cortical effective connectivity in older adults who do not have dementia.

‘My NHMRC fellowship has enabled me to make significant contributions to the field of cognitive neuroscience by providing evidence that daily activity patterns positively influence cognition and global brain networks’ said Dr Smith.

These findings may provide new insights into how activity patterns and physical activity protects the brain against cognitive impairment and dementia. Their next steps will be to test the efficacy of an activity modifying intervention based on the identified optimal activity patterns.

Dr Smith hopes to see optimal interventions for brain health delivered in a way that is enjoyable, sustainable and feasible for individuals at risk of dementia. Few traditional methods of exercise engagement take these factors into account.


Featured image Credit
Photo supplied by: Ashleigh Smith