Even A Quick Bout of Exercise Can Enhance Brain Function

We all know that exercise is good for us, and that even a little bit—on a somewhat consistent basis—can provide many health benefits.  But apparently exercise can enhance brain function and even make you smarter, especially when performed cognitive tasks.

Conducted by neuroscientists at Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU), the study analyzed genes that were found to increase in single neurons that activate during exercise. During the study, they found that a particular gene became more pronounced than the rest. This gene is Mtss1L and, oddly enough, it has been mostly ignored in previous studies examining the brain and genetics. 

This gene, they found, encodes a protein that causes cell membrane elasticity.  More importantly, the researchers found that this gene becomes activated in just short bursts of exercise and, as a result, promotes small growth on neurons called dendritic spines.  This is the site where new synapses form (which improves cognitive function). 

Essentially, acute bursts of exercise is enough to prepare the brain for quality learning. 

And the researchers confirm this.  Co-lead author Gary Westbrook, MD, puts it simply: “Exercise is cheap, and you don’t necessarily need a fancy gym membership or have to run 10 miles a day.” 

The OHSU School of Medicine Vollum Institute senior scientist and Dixon Professor of Neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine goes on to say, “Previous studies of exercise almost all focus on sustained exercise. As neuroscientists, it’s not that we don’t care about the benefits on the heart and muscles but we wanted to know the brain-specific benefit of exercise.”

Essentially, the new study was designed to discover if there are any specific neuronal changes that we can see within a few minutes and up to a couple days after a single period of exercise.  To do this, the researchers exposed a cohort of laboratory mice—who would be otherwise sedentary—to an exercise session on a running wheel, for two hours.  This single exercise session, they estimate, was about the human equivalent of a single weekly game of basketball or perhaps a 2-mile run.

After just one hour of exercise—and nearly immediately—they found the mice displayed enhanced synaptic activity in the hippocampus. This, of course, is the brain area associated with memory and learning.  More importantly, though, the surprise came in the discovery of the expression of the Mtss1L gene.

The results of this study have been published in the journal eLife.