Scientists know that exercise can foster the growth of new brain cells, but the factors responsible for this phenomenon have not been well understood.
In a recent study, researchers have discovered the chemical process that makes this happen. What’s more is that they may be able to “bottle” the chemical that produces this benefit, so a brain-growth pill may be coming to your drug store in the future.
EXERCISE AND THE BRAIN
A part of the brain particularly receptive to new nerve cell growth in response to endurance exercise is the hippocampus, which is a structure associated with learning and memory. The process by which this happens was unclear until recently.
Scientists knew that when endurance exercise works up a sweat, the body produces and releases into the blood stream a protein known as FNDC5. In this study, they found over time that FNDC5 activates the production of another brain protein known as Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). This protein is the factor that stimulates the growth of new nerves as well as the synapses, structures that allow information to pass between nerve cells. Additionally, BDNF helps facilitate the survival of existing brain cells.
How does this process affect you? Endurance exercise, such as jogging or brisk walking, makes your brain stronger and enables it to grow. It fosters improved memory and ability to learn, along with the other benefits of exercise like enhanced heart health.
These benefits are available to anyone who exercises — but what about those who are unable to have a workout? Researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Harvard Medical School found the protein that activates brain growth could potentially be bottled and prescribed for patients experiencing cognitive decline. In effect, the protein would trick the body into thinking it had exercised, resulting in brain growth and improved brain function.
EXERCISE IN A BOTTLE
Co-senior author Bruce Spiegelman, Ph.D. expressed excitement that a natural substance can be given in the bloodstream that simulates some of the benefits of exercise on the brain. In the new study, this natural benefit from exercise was produced artificially in non-exercising mice.
The protein that exercise stimulates, FNDC5, was injected into the bloodstream of mice. After a week, scientists found a notable increase in BDNF in the brain’s hippocampus, a learning and memory region. In other words, the researchers were able to generate the brain growth benefit in the mice independently of exercise. The effect on the brain could be likened to “exercise in a bottle.”
Although the researchers caution that the effects of the study involving mice would need to be duplicated in studies involving humans, the results are promising. In the meantime, the study gives people one more reason to exercise.
About the author:
Mary West is a natural health enthusiast, as she believes this area can profoundly enhance overall wellness. Ms. West is the author of Fight Cancer Through Powerful Natural Strategies, and the creator of alternativemedicinetruth.com, a natural healing website where she focuses on solutions to health problems that work without side effects.