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Cognitive benefits of exercise interventions: an fMRI activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis

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Despite a growing number of functional MRI studies reporting exercise-induced changes during cognitive processing, a systematic determination of the underlying neurobiological pathways is currently lacking. To this end, our neuroimaging meta-analysis included 20 studies and investigated the influence of physical exercise on cognition-related functional brain activation. The overall meta-analysis encompassing all experiments revealed physical exercise-induced changes in the left parietal lobe during cognitive processing. Subgroup analysis further revealed that in the younger-age group (< 35 years old) physical exercise induced more widespread changes in the right hemisphere, whereas in the older-age group (≥ 35 years old) exercise-induced changes were restricted to the left parietal lobe. Subgroup analysis for intervention duration showed that shorter exercise interventions induced changes in regions connected with frontoparietal and default mode networks, whereas regions exhibiting effects of longer interventions connected with frontoparietal and dorsal attention networks. Our findings suggest that physical exercise interventions lead to changes in functional activation patterns primarily located in precuneus and associated with frontoparietal, dorsal attention and default mode networks.

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Q.Y. and L.Y.Z. planned the meta-analysis and formulated the hypotheses. Q.Y. and L.Y.Z performed the literature search and screening. Q.YS., L.Y.Z and Y.J.Z conducted the data extraction and coding, calculated the effect sizes and rated the quality. Q.Y., B.K.B. and L.Y.Z performed the statistical analyses. Q.Y. F.H., and L.Y.Z drafted the initial version of the manuscript. All authors were involved in revisions of the draft.


This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

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Correspondence to Liye Zou.

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Yu, Q., Herold, F., Becker, B. et al. Cognitive benefits of exercise interventions: an fMRI activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis. Brain Struct Funct 226, 601–619 (2021).

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