Cardiovascular risk factors and low physical fitness associated with declining social cognitive functions

A research collaboration has revealed that cardiovascular risk factors (obesity and high blood pressure) and low physical fitness are associated with decreased neural activity related to the brain’s social network (*1), leading to a decline in function social cognitive (*2).

This suggests that having a healthy lifestyle is not only beneficial for disease prevention but also for maintaining and improving sociability. It is hoped that future research will lead to the development of proposals for effective intervention methods through investigations of the effectiveness of interventions targeting cardiovascular risk factors and physical fitness (e.g. exercise programs/ balanced diet) on social cognition.

This collaborative study was conducted by a research group that included Assistant Professor ISHIHARA Toru (Graduate School of Human Development and Environment, Kobe University) and Professor MATSUDA Tetsuya (Institute of Brain Science, Tamagawa University ).

These results were published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s “Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise” journal on June 6, 2022.

main points

  • The research group used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how cardiovascular risk factors (obesity, high blood pressure) and physical fitness (endurance, walking speed, hand dexterity, grip strength) are related to social cognitive functions.
  • They found that cardiovascular risk factors and low physical fitness reduce neural activity related to the brain’s social network, which decreases social cognitive functions.
  • Obesity, endurance and hand dexterity had a particularly strong impact on neural activity related to the social brain network and on social cognitive functions.

Research fund

Obesity has tripled in the past 40 years, and due to this and other contributing factors, the consequent increase in the number of people at risk of cardiovascular disease has been declared a public health concern (WHO, 2021) . Additionally, there is also data indicating that people’s cardiorespiratory endurance has declined over the past 40 years (Lamoureux et al., 2019, Sports Med). Previous research has shown that decreased cognition (memory, awareness, etc.) is associated with cardiovascular risk factors and poor physical fitness (Yang et al., 2018, Neurosci Biobehav Rev; Colcombe & Kramer, 2003, Psychol Sci). However, this research had yet to focus on social cognition, which forms the basis of social interactions. Social cognition is believed to play an important role in our social life and psychological health. In the current circumstances, where the number of people at risk of cardiovascular disease and people with low levels of physical fitness is increasing, there is an urgent need to determine whether these people are also at risk of reduced social cognition. With this in mind, the research group used functional magnetic resonance imaging data (*3) to study the relationship between cardiovascular risk factors, physical fitness and social cognition.

Research methodology and results

Methodology:

This study analyzed the data of 1027 people registered in the database of the Human Connectome Project (*4) (USA). For cardiovascular risk factors, the researchers used body mass index (BMI), which is calculated from each person’s height and weight, as well as systolic and diastolic blood pressure data. As indicators of physical fitness, the researchers used respiratory endurance, walking speed, hand dexterity and grip strength (calculated using the NIH toolkit). To assess social cognitive function, they used animosity perception accuracy (*5), as well as reaction times and percentage of correct responses for the emotion recognition task (*6). Brain activity during social cognition (i.e. during the perception of animosity) was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The research group then used the collected data to investigate the relationship between brain activity during social cognition and cardiovascular/fitness risk factors. Next, they investigated how brain activity during social cognition mediates the relationship between cardiovascular risk factors/physical fitness and social cognitive functions.

Results:

The higher the BMI/blood pressure and the lower the subject’s fitness levels, the lower their levels of neural activity in the social brain network (temporo-parietal junction, temporal lobe, inferior frontal gyrus and cortex posterior cingulate) during social cognition (Figure 1). Among these associations, BMI, endurance and hand dexterity in particular were found to be strongly linked to this decrease in neuronal activity.

Figure 1: Neural activity during social cognition and its relationship to cardiovascular risk factors and physical fitness

Canonical Correlation Analysis (CCA). Left: The strength of association between neural activity and each cardiovascular risk/fitness category. Center: The strength of association between neuronal activity in each region and cardiovascular risk factors/physical fitness. Right: Mapping of brain regions where there was a strong association. Positive value pairs (warm colors) and negative value pairs (cool colors) were positively correlated. There is a negative correlation between a positive value and a negative value. A negative correlation was found between BMI/blood pressure and neural activity in the social network of the brain (yellow regions in the diagrams on the right). A positive correlation was found between neural activity related to the social brain network and physical fitness.

Additionally, they found that cardiovascular risk factors/fitness levels, via neural activity during social cognition, were related to the accuracy of outcomes of animosity perception and emotion recognition tasks (Figure 2). These results indicate that high BMI/blood pressure and low fitness levels are associated with social cognitive decline through decreased neural activity related to the social brain network.

Figure 2: The link between cardiovascular risk factors/physical fitness and social cognitive functions through neural activity during social cognition

Solid lines indicate that a statistically significant connection was found, dashed lines indicate that there was no statistically significant connection. Positive values ​​indicate positive correlations and negative values ​​indicate negative correlations. The results of the emotion recognition task were calculated from the percentage of correct answers and the response times.

Further developments

This research did not shed light on cause and effect (i.e. do cardiovascular risk factors and low physical fitness lead to a decline in social cognitive functions? Or low social cognitive functions lead to they have cardiovascular risk factors and low physical fitness?). In order to investigate whether or not a healthy lifestyle (exercise and balanced diet, etc.) can improve social cognitive functions, it would be necessary to inspect the results of real interventions. In particular, BMI, endurance and hand dexterity were found to be strongly related to social cognitive functions. It can therefore be assumed that highly effective interventions to target weight loss and improve endurance and dexterity would lead to improvements in social cognitive functions.

Glossary

1. Social network of the brain:
The network of brain regions that are active in social cognition. This network includes the medial prefrontal lobe, temporoparietal junction, temporal lobe, posterior cingulate cortex, and inferior frontal gyrus.
2. Social cognitive functions:
Cognitive functions that form the basis of social interactions. For example, perceiving and understanding the intentions, disposition and behavior of others, and forming responses to these.
3. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI):
The magnetic susceptibility of oxidized hemoglobin and reduced hemoglobin is different. MRIs use this difference to estimate and image changes in cerebral blood flow. By analyzing the images, it is possible to predict activity levels in different areas of the brain.
4. Human Connectome Project (USA):
This large-scale research project began in North America in 2012 and aims to deepen understanding of human brain connectivity. The project shares a wide variety of data and has made available around 1,200 brain scan images of participants.
5. Animation perception:
The extent to which one person can perceive another’s intent, emotion, and sensibility. In this study, subjects were presented with a task in which they had to judge whether or not movements of geometric shapes (like circles, triangles, etc.) suggested intentions/emotions/social interactions.
6. Emotion recognition task:
A task to assess a participant’s ability to infer people’s emotions (a social cognitive function) from pictures of faces.

Journal Information

Title
Association of cardiovascular risk and physical fitness markers with task-related neural activity during animosity perception
DOI:10.1249/MSS.0000000000002963
Authors
  • Assistant Professor Toru Ishihara, Graduate School of Human Development and Environment, Kobe University.
  • Assistant Professor Atsushi Miyazaki, Global Education Center, Waseda University.
  • Specially Appointed Assistant Professor Hiroki Tanaka, Institute of Brain Sciences, Tamagawa University.
  • Professor Tetsuya Matsuda, Institute of Brain Sciences, Tamagawa University.
Log
Medicine and science in sport and exercise

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