Marketers, start your engines… a new fitness boom is about to begin. Neuroscience is back in the spotlight again, this time on the front cover of Newsweek in an article titled Stronger, Faster, Smarter. The article reports on work being done at the University of Illinois, UCLA, Columbia University, and other locations to establish the relationship between physical exercise and improved brain fitness.
[The University of Illinois] study, which will be published later this year, isn’t definitive enough to stand alone. But it doesn’t have to: it’s part of a recent and rapidly growing movement in science showing that exercise can make people smarter. Last week, in a landmark paper, researchers announced that they had coaxed the human brain into growing new nerve cells, a process that for decades had been thought impossible, simply by putting subjects on a three-month aerobic-workout regimen. Other scientists have found that vigorous exercise can cause older nerve cells to form dense, interconnected webs that make the brain run faster and more efficiently. And there are clues that physical activity can stave off the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD and other cognitive disorders. No matter your age, it seems, a strong, active body is crucial for building a strong, active mind.
Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey is one researcher investigating the mind-body link:
Every time a bicep or quad contracts and releases, it sends out chemicals, including a protein called IGF-1 that travels through the bloodstream, across the blood-brain barrier and into the brain itself. There, IGF-1 takes on the role of foreman in the body’s neurotransmitter factory. It issues orders to ramp up production of several chemicals, including one called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. Ratey, author of the upcoming book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” calls this molecule “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” It fuels almost all the activities that lead to higher thought.
It was long believed that adults couldn’t create new neurons, although research in more recent years has shown that not to be the case. As it turns out, neurogenesis is affected by exercise, too:
… After working out for three months, all the subjects appeared to sprout new neurons; those who gained the most in cardiovascular fitness also grew the most nerve cells. This, too, might be BDNF at work, transforming stem cells into full-grown, functional neurons. “It was extremely exciting to see this exercise effect in humans for the first time,” says Scott Small, a Columbia University Medical Center neurologist who coauthored the study with Salk Institute neurobiologist Fred Gage. “In terms of trying to understand what it means, the field is just exploding.”… In Small and Gage’s experiment, the new neurons created by exercise cropped up in only one place: the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, an area that controls learning and memory. This region, tucked under the temporal lobes, helps the brain match names to faces – one of the first skills to erode as we age. Fortunately, the hippocampus is especially responsive to BDNF’s effects, and exercise seems to restore it to a healthier, “younger” state.
Who Benefits? One good aspect of these findings is that there should be relatively few ways for charlatans to fleece those who want to preserve or improve brain function with odd gizmos or services. It seems that most benefits come from vigorous aerobic exercise, though some investigators think strength training should be evaluated, too. Once the marketing cranks up for “brain fitness by exercise” the main beneficiaries will be health clubs and treadmill manufacturers. I’m sure we’ll see plenty of fitness marketing activity aimed primarily at baby-boomers who have plenty of disposable income and are at an age when steps to avoid cognitive decline are increasingly seen as important.