Objective: To determine whether Experience Corps (EC), a social service program, would improve age-vulnerable executive functions and increase activity in brain regions in a high-risk group through increased cognitive and physical activity.
Methods: Eight community-dwelling, older female volunteers and nine matched wait-list controls were recruited to serve in the ongoing EC: Baltimore program in three elementary schools. We employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) preintervention and postintervention to examine whether EC volunteers improved executive function and showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex relative to controls. fMRI volunteers were trained and placed with other volunteers 15 h/wk for 6 months during the academic year to assist teachers in kindergarten through third grade to promote children's literacy and academic achievement.
Results: Participants were African American and had low education, low income, and low Mini-Mental State Examination scores (M = 24), indicative of elevated risk for cognitive impairment. Volunteers exhibited intervention-specific increases in brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex over the 6-month interval relative to matched controls. Neural gains were matched by behavioral improvements in executive inhibitory ability.
Conclusions: Using fMRI, we demonstrated intervention-specific short-term gains in executive function and in the activity of prefrontal cortical regions in older adults at elevated risk for cognitive impairment. These pilot results provide proof of concept for use-dependent brain plasticity in later life, and, that interventions designed to promote health and function through everyday activity may enhance plasticity in key regions that support executive function.