Background: Although higher cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) has been linked to better executive function, the mechanisms by which this occurs remain a matter of speculation. One hypothesis is that higher CRF is associated with elevated top-down control in which brain regions processing task-relevant information are up-regulated and brain regions processing task-irrelevant information are down-regulated.
Methods: We tested this top-down hypothesis in 50 young adults (μ age = 25.22 ± 5.17 years) by measuring CRF via a graded maximal exercise test and performing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) during a color-word Stroop task. We used task-evoked functional connectivity, quantified from a psychophysiological interaction analysis (PPI), to test our hypotheses that (a) higher CRF would be associated with greater connectivity between control centers (i.e., prefrontal and parietal areas) and visual feature centers (i.e., occipital areas) that are involved with processing task-relevant stimulus dimensions (i.e., color), and (b) higher CRF would be associated with lower connectivity between control centers and visual feature centers that are involved with processing task-irrelevant dimensions of the stimuli (i.e., word processing areas).
Results: Controlling for sex and BMI, we found, consistent with our second hypothesis, that higher CRF was associated with reduced functional connectivity between parietal and occipital areas involved in the task-irrelevant dimension of the task (i.e., word form areas). There were no associations between CRF and functional connectivity with the prefrontal cortex or evidence of heightened connectivity between attentional control and visual feature centers.
Conclusions: These results suggest that CRF associations with executive functioning might be explained by CRF-mediated differences between brain regions involved with attentional control (parietal regions) and the down-regulation of regions involved with processing task-irrelevant stimulus features (occipital regions).
Keywords: Cardiorespiratory fitness; Stroop test; inhibition; magnetic resonance imaging; young adult.
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