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 social brain network (*1), leading to decreased social cognitive functions (*2).
This suggests that having a healthy lifestyle is not only beneficial for disease prevention but also for maintaining and improving sociability. Future research is expected to lead to the development of proposals for efficient intervention methods through investigations of the effectiveness of interventions that target cardiovascular risk factors and physical fitness (eg, exercise/diet programs balanced) in 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 (Tamagawa University Institute of Brain Sciences).
These results were published in the American College of Sports Medicine journal ‘Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise’ on June 6, 2022.
- The research group used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate how cardiovascular risk factors (obesity, high blood pressure) and physical fitness (endurance, gait speed, manual 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 social brain network, which decreases social cognitive functions.
- Obesity, endurance and manual dexterity had a particularly strong impact on neural activity related to the social brain network and social cognitive functions.
Obesity has tripled in the last 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 matter of public health concern (WHO, 2021). In addition, there is also data indicating that people’s cardiorespiratory endurance has been declining 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 low levels of fitness (Yang et al., 2018, Neurosci Biobehav Rev; Colcombe & Kramer, 2003, Psychol Sci). However, such 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 lives and psychological health. In the current circumstances, where the number of people at risk of cardiovascular disease and of people with low fitness levels is increasing, discovering whether these people are also at risk of suffering a decrease in social cognition is a pressing issue. With this in mind, the research group used fMRI data (*3) to investigate the relationship between cardiovascular risk factors, physical fitness, and social cognition.
Research methodology and results
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, and systolic and diastolic blood pressure data. As indicators of physical fitness, the researchers used respiratory resistance, gait speed, manual dexterity, and grip strength (calculated with the NIH Toolbox). To assess social cognitive function, they used animation perception accuracy (*5), reaction times, and percentage of correct responses for the emotion recognition task (*6). Brain activity during social cognition (ie, during animation perception) was measured using fMRI. The research group then used the collected data to investigate the relationship between brain activity during social cognition and cardiovascular/fitness risk factors. They then investigated how brain activity during social cognition mediates the relationship between cardiovascular risk factors/fitness and social cognitive functions.
The higher the subject’s BMI/blood pressure and lower fitness levels, the lower their levels of neural activity in the social brain network (temporo-parietal junction, temporal lobe, inferior frontal gyrus, and posterior cingulate cortex) during cognition society (Figure 1). Among these associations, BMI, endurance, and manual dexterity in particular were found to be strongly related to this decrease in neural activity.
In addition, they found that cardiovascular risk factors/fitness levels, via neural activity during social cognition, were related to the accuracy of animation perception and emotion recognition task scores (Figure 2). . These results indicate that high BMI/blood pressure and low fitness levels are associated with social cognitive impairment through decreased neural activity related to the brain’s social network.
This research did not clarify cause and effect (i.e., do cardiovascular risk factors and low fitness cause a decline in social cognitive functions? Or do low social cognitive functions lead to cardiovascular risk factors and low fitness) ?). To investigate whether a healthy lifestyle (exercise, balanced diet, etc.) can improve social cognitive functions, it would be necessary to inspect the results of real interventions. In particular, BMI, endurance, and manual dexterity were found to be strongly connected to social cognitive functions, so it can be assumed that highly effective interventions to achieve weight loss and improve endurance and dexterity would lead to improvements in social cognitive functions.
- 1. Brain Social Network:
- The network of brain regions that are active during social cognition. This network includes the medial prefrontal lobe, the temporo-parietal junction, the temporal lobe, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior frontal gyrus.
- 2. Social cognitive functions:
- Cognitive functions that form the basis of social interactions. For example, the perception and understanding of the intentions, disposition and behavior of other people, and the formation of responses to them.
- 3. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI):
- The magnetic susceptibility of oxidized hemoglobin and reduced hemoglobin are different. MRIs use this difference to estimate and produce images of 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 the connectivity of the human brain. The project shares a wide variety of data and has made available brain scan images from approximately 1,200 participants.
- 5. Perception of animation:
- The extent to which one person can perceive another’s intent, emotion, and sensitivity. In this study, subjects were presented with a task in which they had to judge whether the movements of geometric shapes (such as circles, triangles, etc.) suggested intentions/emotions/social interactions or not.
- 6. Emotion recognition task:
- A task to assess a participant’s ability to infer people’s emotions (a social cognitive function) from photos of faces.
- “Association of cardiovascular risk and fitness markers with task-related neural activity during animation perception“
- Assistant Professor Toru Ishihara, Graduate School of Human Development and Environment, Kobe University.
- Assistant Professor Atsushi Miyazaki, Center for Global Education, Waseda University.
- Hiroki Tanaka Specially Appointed Assistant Professor, Brain Science Institute, Tamagawa University.
- Professor Tetsuya Matsuda, Institute of Brain Sciences, Tamagawa University.
- Medicine and science in sports and exercise