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Modulation of cortical and subcortical brain areas at low and high exercise intensities
  1. Eduardo Bodnariuc Fontes1,2,3,
  2. Henrique Bortolotti1,
  3. Kell Grandjean da Costa1,
  4. Brunno Machado de Campos2,
  5. Gabriela K Castanho2,
  6. Rodrigo Hohl4,
  7. Timothy Noakes5,
  8. Li Li Min2
  1. 1 Research Group in Physical Activity, Cognition and Behavior, Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Natal, Brazil
  2. 2 Neuroimaging Laboratory, University of Campinas, Campinas, Brazil
  3. 3 Tufts Applied Cognition Lab, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, USA
  4. 4 Department of Physiology, Federal University of Juiz de Fora, Juiz de Fora, MG, Brazil
  5. 5 Department of Human Biology, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa
  1. Correspondence to Dr Eduardo Bodnariuc Fontes, Neurology, University of Campinas, Campinas 13083-888, Brazil; eduardobfontes{at}


Introduction The brain plays a key role in the perceptual regulation of exercise, yet neuroimaging techniques have only demonstrated superficial brain areas responses during exercise, and little is known about the modulation of the deeper brain areas at different intensities.

Objectives/methods Using a specially designed functional MRI (fMRI) cycling ergometer, we have determined the sequence in which the cortical and subcortical brain regions are modulated at low and high ratings perceived exertion (RPE) during an incremental exercise protocol.

Results Additional to the activation of the classical motor control regions (motor, somatosensory, premotor and supplementary motor cortices and cerebellum), we found the activation of the regions associated with autonomic regulation (ie, insular cortex) (ie, positive blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signal) during exercise. Also, we showed reduced activation (negative BOLD signal) of cognitive-related areas (prefrontal cortex), an effect that increased during exercise at a higher perceived intensity (RPE 13–17 on Borg Scale). The motor cortex remained active throughout the exercise protocol whereas the cerebellum was activated only at low intensity (RPE 6–12), not at high intensity (RPE 13–17).

Conclusions These findings describe the sequence in which different brain areas become activated or deactivated during exercise of increasing intensity, including subcortical areas measured with fMRI analysis.

  • cerebral activation
  • inhibition
  • cortical and subcortical
  • perceived exertion
  • fMRI
  • fatigue

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  • Contributors EBF conceived the idea and participated in all study processes. HB collected and analysed data, presented results and elaborated the first draft. KGdC also drafted the paper, discussed results and made final edits. BMdC contributed to the study design and data analysis. GKC study logistics and data collection. RH contributed to the study design, performed the pilot study and discussed the results. LLM and TN supervised the study. All authors provided an important intellectual contribution, approved the final version and agreed in all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

  • Funding Funded by FAPESP (Process 2011/01466-8).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Ethics approval The study was approved by the local ethics committee.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement There are no data in this work. Data are available upon request. Data may be obtained from a third party and are not publicly available. No data are available. All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information.