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A single bout of aerobic exercise improves executive function; however, the mechanism for the improvement remains unclear. One proposal asserts that an exercise-mediated increase in cerebral blood flow (CBF) enhances the efficiency of executive-related cortical structures. To examine this, participants completed separate 10-min sessions of moderate- to heavy-intensity aerobic exercise, a hypercapnic environment (i.e., 5% CO2), and a nonexercise and nonhypercapnic control condition. The hypercapnic condition was included because it produces an increase in CBF independent of metabolic demands. An estimate of CBF was achieved via transcranial Doppler ultrasound and near-infrared spectroscopy that provided measures of middle cerebral artery blood velocity (BV) and deoxygenated hemoglobin (HHb), respectively. Exercise intensity was adjusted to match participant-specific changes in BV and HHb associated with the hypercapnic condition. Executive function was assessed before and after each session via antisaccades (i.e., saccade mirror-symmetrical to a target) because the task is mediated via the same executive networks that demonstrate task-dependent modulation following single and chronic bouts of aerobic exercise. Results showed that hypercapnic and exercise conditions were associated with comparable BV and HHb changes, whereas the control condition did not produce a change in either metric. In terms of antisaccade performance, the exercise and hypercapnic, but not control, conditions demonstrated improved postcondition reaction times (RT), and the magnitude of the hypercapnic and exercise-based increase in estimated CBF was reliably related to the postcondition improvement in RT. Accordingly, results evince that an increase in CBF represents a candidate mechanism for a postexercise improvement in executive function.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Single-bout aerobic exercise "boosts" executive function, and increased cerebral blood flow (CBF) has been proposed as a mechanism for the benefit. In this study, participants completed 10 min of aerobic exercise and 10 min of inhaling a hypercapnic gas, a manipulation known to increase CBF independently of metabolic demands. Both exercise and hypercapnic conditions improved executive function for at least 20 min. Accordingly, an increase in CBF is a candidate mechanism for the postexercise improvement in executive function.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurophysiol

Publication Date





930 - 940


antisaccade, near-infrared spectroscopy, transcranial Doppler ultrasound, Adult, Cerebrovascular Circulation, Executive Function, Exercise, Female, Humans, Hypercapnia, Male, Saccades, Spectroscopy, Near-Infrared, Ultrasonography, Doppler, Transcranial, Young Adult