Habitual physical activity is beneficial for cerebrovascular health and cognitive function. Physical exercise therefore constitutes a clinically relevant cerebrovascular stimulus. This study demonstrates the feasibility of quantitative cerebral blood flow (CBF) measurements during supine bicycling exercise with pseudo-continuous arterial spin labeling (pCASL) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at 3 Tesla. Twelve healthy volunteers performed a steady-state exercise-recovery protocol on an MR-compatible bicycle ergometer, while dynamic pCASL data were acquired at rest, during moderate (60% of the age-predicted supine maximal heart rate (HRmax)) and vigorous (80% of supine HRmax) exercise, and subsequent recovery. These CBF measurements were compared with 2D phase-contrast MRI measurements of blood flow through the carotid arteries. Procedures were repeated on a separate day for an assessment of measurement repeatability. Whole-brain (WB) CBF was 41.2 ± 6.9 mL/100 g/min at rest (heart rate 63 [57-71] beats/min), remained similar at moderate exercise (102 [97-107] beats/min), decreased by 10% to 37.1 ± 5.7 mL/100 g/min (p = 0.001) during vigorous exercise (139 [136-142] beats/min) and decreased further to 34.2 ± 6.0 mL/100 g/min (p < 0.001) during recovery. Hippocampus CBF decreased by 12% (p = 0.001) during moderate exercise, decreased further during vigorous exercise (-21%; p < 0.001) and was even lower during recovery (-31%; p < 0.001). In contrast, motor cortex CBF increased by 12% (p = 0.027) during moderate exercise, returned to resting-state values during vigorous exercise, and decreased by 17% (p = 0.006) during recovery. The inter-session repeatability coefficients for WB CBF were approximately 20% for all stages of the exercise-recovery protocol. Phase-contrast blood flow measurements through the common carotid arteries overestimated the WB CBF because of flow directed to the face and scalp. This bias increased with exercise. We have demonstrated the feasibility of dynamic pCASL-MRI of the human brain for a quantitative evaluation of cerebral perfusion during bicycling exercise. Our spatially resolved measurements revealed a differential response of CBF in the motor cortex as well as the hippocampus compared with the brain as a whole. Caution is warranted when using flow through the common carotid arteries as a surrogate measure for cerebral perfusion.

Original languageEnglish
Article number118961
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2022


  • Arterial spin labeling MRI
  • Bicycle ergometry
  • Cerebral perfusion
  • Exercise
  • Motor cortex

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