Exercise and the Brain in Health and Disease

The research in the dept.  of Human Physiology is focused on  ‘Exercise and the Brain in Health & Disease’ where  the interaction of exercise on neurochemistry and neurophysiology is explored. The research is concentrated at 3 different levels:

Fundamental – Physiological research
. At this fundamental level, animal and human experiments are combined, with measurements of neurotransmitters and the hormonal output from the brain during different manipulations.  We perform fundamental research on the limits of fatigue, mechanisms of thermoregulation, and the positive effects of exercise on neurogenesis.  Also, the effects of exercising in a polluted environment on the brain also include animal studies.

The Applied – Clinical research aims at examining the value of the study findings of the fundamental research at the applied/clinical level. Again, all studies are within the area of ‘Exercise and the Brain in Health & Disease’. In general, the applied – clinical research is focused on studying exercise and training in different patient populations such as cardiovascular disease, obese, diabetes patients, sports injuries. Recently, the effects of exercise and pollution on health are integrated into the applied – clinical cluster. Linking brain research with pathologies such as obesitas, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease is established in collaboration with dr. Luc Van Loon (University of Maastricht, The Netherlands). This collaboration results in research on cognition, neurogenesis in diabetics, and the elderly person. The ongoing collaboration with dr. Elsa Heyman (University of Lille, France) is in full support of this project, looking at cognitive aspects in type 1 diabetics.

In order to bring applied research in line with the Exercise & Brain research we created the ‘Lotto Sport Science Chair’. In a PhD project several aspects of performance and recovery are examined, focusing on brain mechanisms of fatigue and recovery.  These experiments are linked with the control experiments from the Antarctica mission (2011-2012), and the project focusing on sleep & recovery, and the underlying neurophysiological aspects of recovery and (over)training. Most of the applied sports research is in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Sports looking at training & recovery, and the Royal Military Academy (VIPER). Sports Injury Prevention especially neuromuscular aspects of injury prevention are run together with dr. Evert Verhagen (University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands) and integrating sports injuries with fatigue, recovery and underlying neuromuscular mechanisms. ECSS-ACSM consensus statement on Overtraining was published in 2013.  This is the ‘standard’ publication which is now accepted by the two largest sports science societies in the world (European College of Sport Science & the American College of Sports Medicine). 

Policy making research. The ‘Commuter Cycling’ research line investigates the effect of cycling for transportation on health in a broad prospective. In collaboration with VITO we examine the balance between the health enhancing effects of commuting by bicycle and exercising in busy traffic (polluted air). Bicycle accidents are analyzed into detail in adult and adolescent populations in order to advise policy makers how to create to safer and healthier environment.

Running projects:

Central fatigue during exercise in different environmental circumstances

PIs: Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen, Prof. Dr. Bart Roelands
Collaborators: Prof. Dr Phil Watson, Prof Dr. MF Piacentini, Prof.Dr. Nathaly Pattyn, dept. of Applied Biology of the Université Libre de Bruxelles ULB, Dr. Luk Buyse.

Fatigue during prolonged exercise is caused by a complex interplay between peripheral and central processes in the human body. Besides the accumulation of waste products and lack of energetic sources, as abundantly described in the 20th century, the brain and central nervous system have shown to be involved in the onset of fatigue. Environmental circumstances such as heat and altitude further emphasize the role of central fatigue. 

Cycling performance, recovery and brain functioning – (Lotto Cycling Chair)

PI: Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen
PhD student: Drs. Kevin De Pauw
Collaborators: Prof. Dr. Bart Roelands, Prof. Dr. MF Piacentini

The emphasis of the Lotto project is on the post-exercise recovery period after a prolonged, intensive cycling performance in a thermoneutral (20°C) and hot (30°C) environment. Experiments were conducted with the aim to determine the effect of different post-exercise recovery interventions on a subsequent cycling performance, physiological parameters and brain functioning.

Physical activity, air pollution and the brain

PI: Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen
Post-doc: Dr. Inge Bos
Collaborators: VITO

Physical activity benefits the brain. However the enhanced ventilation rate during exercise results in an increased inhalation of air pollution. Air pollution has been linked to adverse effects on the brain. In this project we investigate the effect of air pollution exposure during exercise on the brain.

Diabetes Associated Cognitive Decline, Can Exercise Help?

PIs: Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen, Dr. Elsa Heyman
PhD student: Dra. Cajsa Tonoli
Collaborators: Prof. Dr. Serge Berthoin, Université Lille Nord de France, Prof. Dr. Bart Roelands, Dr Luk Buyse.

Patients with Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) show a modest, but significant decline in their cognitive function compared to healthy controls. It is however well-known that physical exercise has beneficial effects on the cognitive function in humans with Alzheimer disease, dementia, elderly … The effects of exercise on diabetes-associated cognitive decline are not yet established. Therefore, this is investigated in this research line.

Human Performance under extreme conditions

PIs: Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen, Prof. Dr. Nathalie Pattyn
PhD student: Drs. Helio Fernandez
Collaborators: Prof. Dr. Xavier Neyt VIPER (Royal Military Academy), Prof. Dr. Bart Roelands, Prof Dr. MF Piacentini, VITO – Sport University Köln – VIPER – University of Rome (Foro Italico)

Periodic breathing (PB) is a form of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) characterized by instability in the respiratory pattern that shows an oscillatory behavior. PB is correlated with higher levels of mortality and can be found, e.g., in subjects with damaged respiratory centers, who are exposed to acute hypoxia or suffering from chronic heart failure.

To further explore PB, we conducted an experiment at the Concordia station in the framework of the European Space Agency’s Life Science campaign. In this experiment, that took part during the 2012 winter over, 13 healthy male participants were monitored using a wireless polysomnography. Because of its altitude, at approximately 3800 meters, Concordia provides a unique environment for the study of PB. This is to our knowledge the longest duration study about adaptation to hypoxia ever done. Therefore, the results from this study will provide new insights on the evolution of PB over time.

Sleep-wake regulation - effects of time-on-task on sustained attention using behavioural and electrophysiological recordings.

PIs: Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen, Prof. Dr. Nathalie Pattyn
Post-doc: Dr. Gregory Collet
Collaborators: VIPER – Prof. Dr. Xavier Neyt,

Gregory Collet is studying the effects of time-on-task on sustained attention using behavioural and electrophysiological recordings. He also try to identify variations in cognitive performance and sleep during the Antarctic overwintering period and to investigate the effect of exercise on sleep quality, circadian desynchronization and mood at the behavioural and molecular level.

‘Strategic Research Program’ @ VUB Assessment of Human Robot Interaction. 

PI: Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen
PhD student: Dra. Kristel Knaepen
Collaborators: Prof. Dr. Dirk Lefeber (R&MM), Prof. Dr. Bram Vanderborght (R&MM), Dr Grégory Collet – see also ALTACRO, CYBERLEGS

Until today, it is not entirely clear how humans interact with robotic devices and how we can, based on that interaction, maximize the effectiveness of exoskeletons during rehabilitation. This research line focusses on assessing the human-robot interaction by looking at physiological parameters and the brain in order to improve robot-assisted rehabilitation.

Commuting to school & Health

PIs: Prof. Dr. Bas de Geus, Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen
PhD student: Drs. Jef Van Parijs
Collaborators: VITO

Despite the well-established health benefits associated with regular physical activity, many young people do not meet the WHO & ACSM recommended level. Physically active commuting to school (PACS) has important health implications, because it holds the potential of being physically active on a regular basis. Stimulating cycling or physical activity in general at young age is important as it will increase the probability of being physically active during adulthood.

We-bike: promoting a physically active lifestyle

PI: Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen 
PhD student: Dra Tine Torbeyns
Collaborators: Prof. Dr. Bas de Geus, Prof. Dr. Nathalie Pattyn  

The purpose of this project is to examine the effects of daily cycling on a We-bike on several parameters of general health, cognition and quality of life. We will examine this in secondary school students, office workers and elderly people. For the different age groups respectively, the effects on learning performance and focus (students), productivity and absenteeism (office workers) and cognitive decline and independent functioning (elderly) will be studied. Besides the health aspects, also produced power and the accompanying savings will be measured.

Cognitive and physical strain during sustained military operations

PIs: Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen, Prof. Dr. Nathalie Pattyn
PhD student: Dra Susan Vrijkotte
Collaborators: Prof. Dr. Bart Roelands, Prof. Dr. MF Piacentini, Dr. Luk Buyse

Soldiers are exposed to sustained operations during which they need to be active for more than 72 hours without time to rest. The cognitive and physical sustainability of these soldiers will be affected. At the moment, there is no objective tool that can predict soldier’s sustainability.

Central aspects of Sports injury prevention

PI: Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen
PhD student: Drs. Jo Verschueren
Collaborators: Dr Luk Buyse, Dr. Evert Verhagen

Sports injury prevention is becoming increasingly important in organised sports. This domain has evolved rapidly in the last decades, leading to a better understanding of peripheral risk factors and injury mechanisms. This research focuses on the central aspects of sport injuries and sports injury prevention.

Sports injury prevention

PIs: Prof. Dr. Romain Meeusen, Dr. Evert Verhaegen
PhD student: Dra Inne Aerts
Collaborators: Dr Elke Cumps, Dr. Luk Buyse

Current information seems inconclusive as to the exact factors that predispose athletes to greater lower extremity injury risk; yet preliminary information leads us to believe that biomechanical landing patterns are associated with increased knee injury risk. It is important to prevent these injuries to diminish the consequence for the athlete (missing training, games high costs,…)

Collaborations - partnerships

Of special interest is the collaboration with the R&MM research group of the faculty of Engineering (VUB). This collaboration started with the ALTACRO project in which a substantial grant from the VUB  goes to the building of a ‘rehabilitation robot’.  It is the purpose to convert and integrate this project into the ‘Exercise & Brain’ program.  A first accomplishment is the recent successful EU grant application (FP7-ICT-2011-7) ‘Cyberlegs’.  In this new project R&MM and MFYS are the VUB partners in building a ‘cognitive’ orthesis – a project that fully underscores the ‘Exercise and the Brain, in Health & Disease’ research line. 

This ongoing collaboration resulted in the ‘Strategic Research Program’ @ VUB. ‘Exercise and the Brain in Health & Disease: The Added Value of Human-Centered Robotics’ focuses at integrating the expertise of the two VUB groups so that the specific multidisciplinary research can be performed. Furthermore, it will allow us to cross the conventional research borders, and develop an unique joint expertise within the consortium.   A ‘SBO grant’ was obtained (KUL-VUB-UCL) ‘MIRAD’ (An integrated methodology to bring intelligent Robot Assistive Devices to the user). 

The Royal Military Academy (VIPER) is also a prominent partner, especially Dr. Nathalie Pattyn, who is an expert in psychophysiological aspects of stress, sleep and cognition.  The study on confinement has led to an ESA grant ‘Mars 500’ on long duration isolation and the effect of exercise. This international project is run together with the University of Rome – Foro Italico and the Sport university of Köln. The ESA-BELSPO sponsored ‘Antarctica project’ integrates the collaboration between several groups such as VITOSport University KölnVIPERUniversity of Rome (Foro Italico) - MFYS VUB.

The close collaboration with the laboratory of pharmacology FASC (VUB) within the Centre for Neuroscience for the animal studies has proven to be an important factor in the research. An international collaboration with a Japanese group (University of Hiroshima) is established. 

Exploring brain mechanisms of fatigue not only involves neurotransmission but also supraspinal pathways, this is examined together with the dept. of Applied Biology of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB).

MFYS involves all levels of research in its projects (from fundamental physiological, through applied clinical research to policy making research).  The first interuniversity spin-off between VUB & UGent Spartanova is a company that is specialized in bringing sport science technology (training & testing, injury prevention, training monitoring) from academia to end users (sport scientist, sport physiotherapists, trainers, coaches and athletes). 


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