Aerobic fitness linked to cortical brain development in adolescent males: Preliminary findings suggest a possible role of BDNF genotype

Megan M. Herting, Madison F. Keenan, Bonnie J. Nagel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Aerobic exercise has been shown to impact brain structure and cognition in children and adults. Exercise-induced activation of a growth protein known as brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is thought to contribute to such relationships. To date, however, no study has examined how aerobic fitness relates to cortical brain structure during development and if BDNF genotype moderates these relationships. Using structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and FreeSurfer, the current study examined how aerobic fitness relates to volume, thickness, and surface area in 34 male adolescents, 15 to 18 years old. Moreover, we examined if the val66met BDNF genotype moderated these relationships. We hypothesized that aerobic fitness would relate to greater thickness and volumes in frontal, parietal, and motor regions, and that these relationships would be less robust in individuals carrying a Met allele, since this genotype leads to lower BDNF expression. We found that aerobic fitness positively related to right rostral middle frontal cortical volume in all adolescents. However, results also showed BDNF genotype moderated the relationship between aerobic fitness and bilateral medial precuneus surface area, with a positive relationship seen in individuals with the Val/Val allele, but no relationship detected in those adolescents carrying a Met allele. Lastly, using self-reported levels of aerobic activity, we found that higher-fit adolescents showed larger right medial pericalcarine, right cuneus and left precuneus surface areas as compared to their low-fit peers. Our findings suggest that aerobic fitness is linked to cortical brain development in male adolescents, and that more research is warranted to determine how an individual’s genes may influence these relationships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number327
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
StatePublished - Jun 30 2016


  • Adolescence
  • BDNF
  • Cortical volume
  • Exercise
  • Genotype
  • Neuroimaging

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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