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Exam revision: unveiling the science behind brain health

Maintaining focus when preparing for exams is essential for success. Dr Katia Vione, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology, delves into the world of neuroscience and brain health to understand how a healthy lifestyle can support you during exam revision.

By Dr Katia Vione - 14 April 2024

How does the brain work? 

The brain controls everything we do. It's made up of billions of cells called neurons, which communicate through electrical signals (synapses). These signals travel along pathways and form networks that generate all human activity. The brain regulates vital functions such as breathing and heartbeat, it also processes information, controls movements, and stores memories. It's divided into regions, each with dedicated functions.

During our lifespan, the brain goes through remarkable changes. Throughout childhood, the brain forms countless connections through experiences and learning. As we age, these connections are refined and become more efficient. Certain areas of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex, only fully mature in adulthood. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for activities like decision-making, self-control and critical thinking. This area is important for learning and academic performance.

Keeping your brain healthy through good sleep, nutrition, regular exercise, and other life activities is key to strengthening the neuron connections to optimise brain development, and improve cognition and learning and overall wellbeing. A balanced lifestyle can improve brain health and support you during exams. Here is a breakdown of everything to consider to keep your brain healthy.


Sleep is as essential for survival as food and water. It’s during our sleep that we form and maintain neuron pathways in our brain.

Research in the field of neuroscience has shown that sleep deprivation affects mood and cognitive performance. Sleep deprivation appears to affect academic performance of students of all ages (Dewald et al., 2010). One of the possible explanations for the relationship between sleep and academic performance is that sleep is one of the most important elements for memory consolidation. During sleep, unspecific connections in the hippocampus, the brain area responsible for memory, are downscaled, whilst synapses that are task relevant become stronger.

Dewald and colleagues (2010) conducted a study to understand the relationship between sleep and academic performance, finding that better sleep quality and higher sleep duration were positively associated with school performance, that is, students who sleep more and better achieved higher grades. Their findings also revealed that the strongest association was with sleepiness during the day. Therefore, if you are unsure whether you are sleeping long enough or well enough for your brain health, observing how sleepy you feel during the day is a good starting point.


Our diet affects our brain connections. Specific nutrients can have a direct contribution to synaptic transmission and other brain processes. For instance, omega-3 fatty acids are a key component of the membranes of our brain cells, and certain nutrients found in fruits and vegetables (e.g., polyphenols) can help with neuronal signalling. On the other hand, certain types of sugar and fat contribute towards oxidative stress which makes our brain age faster.

Research has found that students who have a healthy diet tend to perform better in areas like language and mathematics (Correa-Burrows et al., 2016). In this same study, the researchers found that an unhealthy diet has been linked to lower chances of attaining good grades. A healthy diet involved nutrient rich foods, such as fruit and vegetables, and only small amounts of processed foods.

Based on these research findings, experimenting in the kitchen with real food might be a good way to feed your brain the nutrients it needs and to also reduce stress levels by engaging in cooking (Pop-Kostic & Simonovic, 2023).

Physical activity

Research has shown that physical activity can modify white matter integrity and activate brain regions responsible for cognitive processes involved in learning. So, many researchers started to test whether prescribing physical activity could improve educational performance.

García-Hermoso and colleagues (2021) found that interventions using physical activity improved cognition and academic performance, especially mathematics skills. Fedewa and Ahn (2011) also observed positive effects of physical activity, especially aerobic exercise and activities in groups. These findings suggest that exercising with friends might be more beneficial than exercising on your own. Inviting your friends for a walk in the park or to play sports can not only improve your physical fitness, it may also help your brain work better and provide a well-earned break from studying.

Life balance

Your mental wellbeing goes beyond your sleep, diet and physical activity. Having positive feelings is also important for academic performance. You may need to prioritise your studies in the run-up to exams, but it’s important that you still plan some time to do things you enjoy and make you feel good.

Below are some activities that have been linked to mental wellbeing and academic performance.


Research has found positive associations between wellbeing and different forms of arts. For instance, Roman-Caballero and colleagues (2022) reported a positive association between musical training and academic benefits even during a short period of time.


Whether you are going for a walk in the park, looking after your garden or simply observing the night sky, feeling connected and in contact with nature is likely to improve your wellbeing.

Take home messages:

  • Correa-Burrows, P., Burrows, R., Blanco, E., Reyes, M., & Gahagan, S. (2016). Nutritional quality of diet and academic performance in Chilean students. Bulletin of the World Health Organization,  94(3), 185–192
  • Dewald, J. F., Meijer, A. M., Oort, F. J., Kerkhof, G. A., & Bögels, S. M. (2010). The influence of sleep quality, sleep duration and sleepiness on school performance in children and adolescents: A meta-analytic review. Sleep medicine reviews, 14(3), 179-189
  • Fedewa, A. L., & Ahn, S. (2011). The effects of physical activity and physical fitness on children's achievement and cognitive outcomes: a meta-analysis. Research quarterly for exercise and sport, 82(3), 521-535
  • García-Hermoso, A., Ramírez-Vélez, R., Lubans, D. R., & Izquierdo, M. (2021). Effects of physical education interventions on cognition and academic performance outcomes in children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British journal of sports medicine, 55(21), 1224-1232
  • Hany. (1996). How Leisure Activities Correspond to the Development of Creative Achievement: insights from a study of highly intelligent individuals 1. High Ability Studies : The Journal of the European Council for High Ability /, 7(1), 65–82
  • Pop-Kostic, J. & Simonovic, B. (2023). Baking in Harmony: Modernised Balkan cuisine, Guidance to overcome stress through cooking. Independently published (Amazon books)
  • Román-Caballero, R., Vadillo, M. A., Trainor, L. J., & Lupiánez, J. (2022). Please don't stop the music: A meta-analysis of the cognitive and academic benefits of instrumental musical training in childhood and adolescence. Educational Research Review, 35, 100436
  • Wilson, C., & Sharpe, D. (2017). Promoting young people’s mental health and well-being through participation in the arts: A mixed-methods service evaluation of the Zinc Arts ArtZone programme. Journal of Applied Arts & Health, 8(1), 39-55
  • 1 Álvarez-Bueno C, Pesce C, Cavero-Redondo I, et al. The effect of physical activity interventions on children’s cognition and metacognition: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 2017;56:729–38
  • Ahn S, Fedewa AL. A meta-analysis of the relationship between children’s physical activity and mental health. J Pediatr Psychol 2011;36:385–97
  • Sibley BA, Etnier JL. The relationship between physical activity and cognition in children: a meta-analysis. Pediatr Exerc Sci 2003;15:243–56
  • Fedewa AL, Ahn S. The effects of physical activity and physical fitness on children’s achievement and cognitive outcomes: a meta-analysis. Res Q Exerc Sport 2011;82:521–35

About the author

Dr Katia Vione
Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology

Lecturer in Psychology Dr Katia Vione joined the University of Derby in April 2017, having previously worked as a lecturer in Brazil and as a teaching assistant at Cardiff University.

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