High cardiorespiratory fitness in early to late middle age preserves the cortical circuitry associated with brain-heart integration during volitional exercise
Journal of Neurophysiology
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This study tested the hypothesis that high cardiorespiratory fitness (peak oxygen uptake) preserves the cortical circuitry associated with cardiac arousal during exercise in middle- to older-aged individuals. Observations of changes in heart rate (HR) and in cortical blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) images were made in 52 healthy, active individuals (45–73 yr; 16 women, 36 men) across a range of fitness (26–66 ml·kg −1 ·min −1 ). Seven repeated bouts of isometric handgrip (IHG) at 40% maximal voluntary contraction force were performed with functional magnetic resonance imaging at 3 T, with each contraction lasting 20 s and separated by 40 s of rest. HR responses to IHG showed high variability across individuals. Linear regression revealed that cardiorespiratory fitness was not a strong predictor of the HR response ( r 2 = 0.09). In a region-of-interest analysis both the IHG task and the HR time course correlated with increased cortical activation in the bilateral insula and decreased activation relative to baseline in the anterior and posterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). t-Test results revealed greater deactivation at the MPFC with higher fitness levels beyond that of guideline-based activity. Therefore, whereas high cardiorespiratory fitness failed to affect absolute HR responses to IHG in this age range, a select effect was observed in cortical regions known to be associated with cardiovascular arousal. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Our first observation suggests that fitness does not strongly predict the heart rate (HR) response to a volitional handgrip task in middle- to older-aged adults. Second, the BOLD response associated with the handgrip task, and with the HR time course, was associated with response patterns in the cortical autonomic network. Finally, whereas high cardiorespiratory fitness failed to affect absolute HR responses to isometric handgrip in this age range, a select effect was observed in cortical regions known to be associated with cardiovascular arousal, beyond that achieved through healthy active living.