Boston University Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences
Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation

Boston University Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences
Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation

Synergistic Effects of Exercise and Cognitive Remediation on Cognitive Functioning in Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder


Gayle Berg Endowed Research Fund


2017 - 2018


Susan McGurk, Ph.D., Principal Investigator


Problems with cognitive functioning in areas such as attention, concentration, and memory are common in people with a serious mental illness and can interfere with achieving personal goals. Research has shown that cognitive remediation (including coaching on computerized cognitive exercises) improves cognitive functioning and social and vocational functioning. There is also evidence that physical exercise (such as brisk walking or jogging) improves cognitive functioning, which is believed to be due to its effects on increasing enhanced brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that is vital to the health of neurons and promotes brain plasticity. However, little research has explored the benefits of combining exercise with cognitive remediation in people with a serious mental illness.

This study was aimed at evaluating whether adding a peer-led exercise program to a standardized cognitive remediation program improves cognitive functioning more than providing cognitive remediation alone. The study also explored whether any greater improvements in cognitive functioning related to exercise are associated with increases in brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), as measured by laboratory tests of blood samples.

A randomized controlled trial was conducted in which 30 people with serious mental illness were randomly assigned (by chance) to either receive a standardized computer-based cognitive remediation program alone or the same cognitive remediation program + a peer-run physical exercise program designed to promote cardiovascular fitness. The intervention involved three sessions per week for 10 weeks. All study participants received a free healthy lunch or snack before cognitive remediation sessions. Interview-based assessments of cognitive functioning and symptoms were conducted at baseline, after the end of the program (Week 11), and 2 weeks later (Week 13). BDNF levels were measured from blood samples obtained at baseline, 5-weeks into the study, and at the end of the 10-week study period. All participants were also given a “Fitbit” to record their activity levels (steps) during the study.


Principal Investigator: Susan McGurk, Ph.D.
Co-Investigator: Kim Mueser, Ph.D.
Co-Investigator: Michael Otto, Ph.D.
Co-Investigator: Stacey Zawacki, Ph.D.
Peer Leader: Lenny Mulcahy, B.A.
Advisor: Dori Hutchinson, Sc.D.
Project Coordinator: Snigdha Talluri, M.A.



Inquiries related to the project should be addressed to:

Susan McGurk, Ph.D. or Kim Mueser, Ph.D.;
Boston University, Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation
940 Commonwealth Avenue West, 2nd Floor
Boston, MA 02215