Exercise Boosts Neurogenesis
> 8/20/2007 11:54:43 AM

An article from the New York Times magazine Play examined the state of current research into what is sometimes referred to as the mind-body connection. What their article really looked at was the effects that exercise and a healthy lifestyle can have on our cognitive function. It wasn't all that long ago when scientists considered the brain a "finished product" after early childhood development ended. This conception of the brain held that all our neural pathways were largely in place by adolescence, and that cognitive decline was an inevitable part of aging. As we see in Lobes of Steel, though, it was in working with mice that scientists first began to suspect that our brains were much more malleable than previously thought.

While in 2007 it might not be a groundbreaking concept, the idea that our behavior could improve our cognitive functioning took some serious work to prove. It was research by Fred Gage of the Salk Institute that finally pushed this line of thinking over the top in 1998. As the NYT article discusses, further research revealed just how much of a landmark discovery Gage had made. In one fell swoop, all our previous ideas about the way our brains aged was overturned—instead of being at the whim of genetics and the cruel hands of time, we had the ability to positively effect our brain function. But while this research is now nearly a decade old, there are still many who have yet to grasp its significance.

The NYT points out some very important implications from this line of researching, among them:
  • The Columbia study suggests that shrinkage to parts of the hippocampus [due to aging] can be slowed via exercise. The subjects showed significant improvements in memory, as measured by a word-recall test. Those with the biggest increases in VO2 max[, a measure of oxygen intake during exercise] had the best scores of all.
  • At the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, a group of elderly sedentary people were assigned to either an aerobic exercise program or a regimen of stretching. After six months, their brains were scanned using an M.R.I. Those who had been doing aerobic exercise showed significant growth in several areas of the brain.
  • Other University of Illinois scientists have studied school-age children and found that those with higher levels of aerobic fitness processed information more efficiently; they were quicker on a battery of computerized flashcard tests.
Interestingly, no one yet understands the exact mechanisms by which exercise improves mental functioning, but there are many ideas. One even relates to depression treatment and antidepressant effectiveness in particular. Low levels of serotonin are common in depression sufferers, who also exhibit shrunken hippocampi. Exercise, however, helps to boost serotinin production and improve cognitive functioning. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with research that has shown the potential for exercise to operate as an antidepressant. As the article points out, antidepressants typically take several weeks to begin working, about the same amount of time it takes for new brain cells to develop and mature.

Exercise is very frequently discussed in relation to physical health and well-being. It is through this context that many understand its benefits. But as can be seen here, the cognitive gains to be attained are just as powerful and important. If you needed another reason to get back into the gym, look no further.

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