EXERCISING HER MIND

by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:

If her academic career had not taken a turn, Dr. Cindy Barha might now be studying Catherine the Great and Ivan the Terrible instead of the mysteries of the brain. As an undergraduate student, she began studying Russian history, followed briefly by microbiology. But then, there was a moment of revelation while attending a biopsychology course. Her professor was discussing the ways in which estrogen influences the brain. Fascinatingly, there was a photograph in a textbook depicting a brain cell before and after the hormone was given.

I WAS JUST BLOWN AWAY AT HOW THIS ONE HORMONE – AFTER JUST A FEW HOURS OF EXPOSURE – CAN COMPLETELY CHANGE THE WAY THIS BRAIN CELL LOOKED. AND BASICALLY I WAS HOOKED.

There was a time when we thought our brains were static – that when a cell dies, it is irreplaceable. Now, scientists are exploring the notion of neuroplasticity, the ability of our brain to change and remodel itself in response to experience, influenced by factors like hormones.

The concept fascinated Dr. Barha. As a graduate student, she studied the use of hormone replacement therapy as a treatment for cognitive decline in older women. She examined the differences between the brains of women and men as they age, using rodent models for her research, with all of her work infused by an interest in women’s brain health.

When she completed her PhD, she wanted to explore different types of treatments and ultimately decided to focus on exercise. “It seemed like a great fit because we know it’s a lifestyle intervention for aging in terms of cognitive function and we also know that it impacts different hormones in the body. Exercise is also thought to increase plasticity, and so it checked all the boxes,” said Dr. Barha, now a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Physical Therapy, Faculty of Medicine, at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Now, she would have the opportunity to work with human beings instead of laboratory rats in a major research project co-funded by Brain Canada and the Alzheimer’s Association (U.S.). The project is supervised by Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Director of the Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at UBC’s Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health. Dr. Liu-Ambrose also has an interest in brain health and was already studying the effects of exercise on the cognitive function of older women.

In her early work in the laboratory, Dr. Barha found that aerobic exercise seems to benefit certain kinds of cognition in women more than men. It is that difference between the sexes that is now at the heart of her latest research. Dr. Barha wants to understand why this disparity exists – a critical question as the scientific community searches for therapies for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other forms of dementia.

FOR ME, LOOKING AT SEX DIFFERENCES IN AD IS CRUCIAL BECAUSE WE KNOW MORE THAN TWO-THIRDS OF THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE THE DISEASE ARE WOMEN. IT WILL HELP US IDENTIFY THE UNIQUE RISK FACTORS FOR THE SEXES, DETERMINE WHETHER THE DISEASE PROGRESSES DIFFERENTLY IN MALE AND FEMALE BRAINS, AND WILL ULTIMATELY HELP US DISCOVER NEW EFFECTIVE TREATMENTS FOR AD THAT MAY BE SEX-SPECIFIC.

Dr. Barha and her colleagues have recruited more than 200 individuals over the age of 65, each of whom have some level of confirmed cognitive impairment. The participants engage in exercise classes supervised by a certified instructor and, at various points in the study, give blood and saliva samples, as well as undergo a battery of cognitive tests and brain scans.

The pandemic, however, has greatly complicated matters. For a period of time, the exercise classes were being held remotely, with the participants connecting virtually with the instructors from their respective homes. When they were able to return to in-person training, it was in much smaller groups to allow for proper distancing.

Fortunately, recruitment for the study was never an issue. “Our participants really enjoy it and it’s not hard for them to convince their friends to take part,” Dr. Barha noted. Participants received virtual one-on-one fitness training, which provided an enjoyable break from the dreariness of pandemic restrictions.

OLDER ADULTS ARE STUCK AT HOME LIKE MANY OF US AND THE SOCIAL ASPECT OF OUR STUDIES IS REALLY IMPORTANT FOR THEM. IT’S A BONUS FOR THEM TO INTERACT WITH OTHER ADULTS AND OTHER STAFF MEMBERS.

The numerous benefits of exercise for our mental and physical health have already been well-documented. Dr. Barha noted that if we can learn more about how exercise might serve as a treatment for dementia, it would be both cost effective and easy to access in the community. She cautioned, however, that before we can prescribe exercise as medicine, “it’s imperative to maximize its beneficial effects by understanding how different factors such as the biological sex of the individual, the genetic makeup of the individual, and the type (and amount) of exercise can alter its efficacy.”

Dr. Barha has faced her own personal difficulties with the study during the pandemic. Not only did she have to organize a major research project remotely, but she also had to take her 15-month-old son out of daycare for three months. As any parent would understand, having a child of that age at home made it exceedingly difficult to get any work done. Now, her son is back in daycare, and she is pregnant with her second child.

While Dr. Barha – like so many of us – copes with the pandemic and parenthood, she is grateful for her funders, whose support allowed her to broaden the scope of her research. “Without the support of Brain Canada, I wouldn’t have the same level of freedom to ask the questions I want, particularly related to women’s brain health.”

This Project has been made possible with the financial support of Health Canada, through the Canada Brain Research Fund, an innovative partnership between the Government of Canada (through Health Canada) and Brain Canada, and of Alzheimer’s Association USA. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the Minister of Health or the Government of Canada.