Prefrontal Cortex Oxygenation During Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review of Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy Studies


Jonas De Wachter, Matthias Proost, Jelle Habay, Matthias Verstraelen,

Jesús Díaz-García, Philip Hurst, Romain Meeusen, Jeroen Van Cutsem

and Bart Roelands

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A myriad of factors underlie pacing-/exhaustion-decisions that are made during whole-body endurance performance. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is a brain region that is crucial for decision-making, planning, and attention. PFC oxygenation seems to be a mediating factor of performance decisions during endurance performance. Nowadays, there is no general overview summarizing the current knowledge on how PFC oxygenation evolves during whole-body endurance performance and whether this is a determining factor.


Three electronic databases were searched for studies related to the assessment of PFC oxygenation, through near-IR spectroscopy (NIRS), during endurance exercise. To express PFC oxygenation, oxygenated (HbO2) and deoxygenated hemoglobin (HHb) concentrations were the primary outcome measures.


Twenty-eight articles were included. Ten articles focused on assessing prefrontal oxygenation through a maximal incremental test (MIT) and 18 focused on using endurance tasks at workloads ranging from low intensity to supramaximal intensity. In four MIT studies measuring HbO2, an increase of HbO2 was noticed at the respiratory compensation point (RCP), after which it decreased. HbO2 reached a steady state in the four studies and increased in one study until exhaustion. All studies found a decrease or steady state in HHb from the start until RCP and an increase to exhaustion. In regard to (non-incremental) endurance tasks, a general increase in PFC oxygenation was found while achieving a steady state at vigorous intensities. PCF deoxygenation was evident for near-to-maximal intensities at which an increase in oxygenation and the maintenance of a steady state could not be retained.


MIT studies show the presence of a cerebral oxygenation threshold (ThCox) at RCP. PFC oxygenation increases until the RCP threshold, thereafter, a steady state is reached and HbO2 declines. This study shows that the results obtained from MIT are transferable to non-incremental endurance exercise. HbO2 increases during low-intensity and moderate-intensity until vigorous-intensity exercise, and it reaches a steady state in vigorous-intensity exercise. Furthermore, ThCox can be found between vigorous and near-maximal intensities. During endurance exercise at near-maximal intensities, PFC oxygenation increases until the value exceeding this threshold, resulting in a decrease in PFC oxygenation. Future research should aim at maintaining and improving PFC oxygenation to help in improving endurance performance and to examine whether PFC oxygenation has a role in other performance-limiting factors.