It is widely accepted that exercise is good for your health, but can it even increase brain cells? That is the conclusion from several new reports published in the first issue of the journal Brain Plasticity. Overall, the publications presented several pieces of compelling evidence revealing that exercise benefits the brain, both in healthy individuals and in those with various neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
One study, titled “Running Improves Pattern Separation during Novel Object Recognition,” conducted in Basel, Switzerland, examined a type of cognitive task known as “pattern separation,” and focused on how running may improve the brain’s ability to distinguish the shapes of different objects. The researchers found that mice that spend time running in wheels have an increase in brain cells in a critical region known as the hippocampus, an area that helps process short term to long term memory. This region also degenerates in people who have Alzheimer’s disease. Not surprisingly then, animals that run more also do better in tasks designed to measure memory abilities, including pattern separation.
According to lead researcher Josef Bischofberger, PhD, Professor, Department of Biomedicine, University of Basel, “Our research indicates that exercise-induced increase in neurogenesis improves pattern separation by supporting unique and detailed long-term representations of similar but nevertheless different memory items. Pattern separation is involved in many memory tasks of everyday life. For example, when learning the game of chess, it is critically important to remember the different shapes of pieces like the pawn and bishop. Similarly, remembering the precise pattern of pieces on the board during a previously successful opening or endgame may decide who will win or lose.”
Another one of the papers published in the inaugural issue of Brain Plasticity reviewed how exercise may boost brain function in people with a variety of diseases. The authors of this study, entitled, “The Benefits of Exercise on Structural and Functional Plasticity in the Rodent Hippocampus of Different Disease Models” noted, “The evidence is clear that voluntary exercise in rats and mice can lead to increases in hippocampal neurogenesis and enhanced synaptic plasticity which ultimately result in improved performance in hippocampal-dependent tasks. Furthermore, in models of neurological disorders, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease exercise can also elicit beneficial effects on hippocampal function.”
Improvements in brain function due to exercise may be linked to numerous factors, including better blood flow and cardiovascular health. In addition, beneficial brain molecules, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, increase with exercise and may nurture brain cells, promoting their survival and proliferation. Overall, the evidence points toward exercise as a prescription for better brain health. Exercise may even ward off conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or decrease the effects of neurological disease, though more studies are needed to confirm these early findings.
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