Research is proving that exercise can improve brain function. Could this offer hope for Alzheimer’s?
Latest research has shown that putting subjects through a three-month aerobic programme, new nerve cells grew in the human brain, something that was thought to be impossible.
The participants of a study carried out at the Columbia University Medical Centre appeared to grow new neurons over a three-month period of aerobic exercise and the subjects that did the most exercise grew more brain cells.
It appears that when a muscle moves it release’s a protein called IGF-1. When this protein meets the brain by way of the blood stream chemical changes take place and one of these changes is known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is a secreted protein which is thankfully shortened to BDNF. BDNF makes brain nerve cells branch out so that the brain can communicate with itself in different ways. The result is being able to learn, remember, think more creatively and have a greater capacity for knowledge. Exercise builds up this chemical.
BDNF stays constant until middle age when it then begins to decline and scientist believed that this was permanent but animal studies in the 1990’s proved that some parts of the brain could be bought back to life.
Another study at the University of Illinois put 259 students through a simple fitness test and then compared this with their reading and maths capabilities. The cleverest students were also the fittest students.
Vigorous exercise in older people also makes the nerve cells of the brain to form thick interconnected webs that makes the brain respond quicker and more efficiently.
The research is still in its infancy. A study by Small and Gage showed that neuron growth only took place in the learning and memory part of the brain called the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus but another study by Arthur Kramer a psychologist at the University of Illinois who studied 60 and 70 years olds found exercise formed growth in the frontal lobe the part that helps us plan and multi task.
So where is all this leading? It is a proven fact that exercise helps the brain in many ways. The increase blood flow through the brain helps form new capillaries and keeps existing ones clear of plaque, reducing the risk of stroke. Chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and nor epinephrine are more abundant in people who exercise. These are the chemicals that help you stay calm acting like a little shot of Prozac. Although new neuron growth can take weeks and even months to develop these effects can be instant and last for days. However stop working out and things reverse very quickly.
It is thought that you cannot build up reserves of these neurons by exercising in your youth and then chilling out in old age, you have to exercise all the time. Only children can build up a reserve as their brains keep growing up to about the age of 20 and so they can retain the benefits through a certain period of their adulthood. But these will run out eventually so exercise still has to become part of a persons life, for life if they want the benefits well into old age.
The last paragraph now raises two questions. The first is that scientists believe that exercise may have benefits for a child’s brain that are still undiscovered, so exercise should not just be seen as an answer to the modern day problem of child obesity. It could do so much more for a child’s development. Secondly if exercise can grow new brain cells could this help slowdown the progression of Alzheimer’s. Research has shown that people who have worked out regularly throughout their life are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s.
At the moment research has only concentrated on aerobic exercise, very little research has been done on weight training so there is so much more that needs to be done and many unanswered questions such as what exercise is best, how long do you need to exercise, does the time of day that you exercise have a greater effect on the brain.
The ultimate goal would be to develop a pill that mimics the benefits of exercise, but that is a long way of. So for now working out is the only way and many of the researches after seeing the results have taken to doing just that.