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Exercise or Not? Does physical activity encourage new neuron development in the brain?

Posted May 21 2011 8:43am
05/21/2011 By ~ Sandy Leave a Comment

For decades scientists would not believe that new neurons could be formed in the brain. The standard belief was that if you lost or damaged neurons in the brain, the damage was done. Neurons could not be replaced.

But now, “The molecular and cellular details explaining how exercise stimulates the birth of new brain cells have been worked out in great detail. Immature non-neuronal cells in the adult brain (glia) respond to protein growth factors that are generated in the body during robust physical activity. These growth factors stimulate the mother cells to spawn new neurons in the hippocampus, ” reports Neurobiologist; Author, The Other BrainDr. Douglas Fields.

Even more amazing is that these nubile neurons travel through brain tissue to find their proper place in the neural circuitry of the brain. Then the new neurons are able to wire themselves into the existing network of connections to boost performace in memory. It’s sort of like adding Ram when your personal computer needs a memory boost.

The belief is that this happens when we stay physically fit and exercise on a regular basis. How it happens is explained by Gerd Kempermann and colleagues at Stanford, the University of Zurich and Dresden, Germany, in their recent paper published in the journal “Frontiers in Neuroscience.”

This paper states, “Back then, human activity could be divided into two states, lounging and looking (for food). The purpose of memory back then, as it is today, is to integrate novel information that is likely to be important to our survival in the future. Back when natural selection was picking which genes our ancestors would pass down to the human race of today, searching for food was the intellectual arena of cognitive challenge. It was on these often lengthy and strenuous excursions from the familiar home site that novel information was most likely to be encountered. Our ancestors walked vast distances in search of food and better habitat, crossing through unfamiliar and dangerously challenging terrain and transcending distances that we now cover sitting on our gluteus maximus behind the wheel of a car. This, the scientists suggest, is why the body hatches new neurons in the memory region of the brain when we exercise — to better equip us for the cognitive demands of the excursion.”

If their theory is correct, we should remember an excursion far better if we had peddled our way over the road rather than motored over it effortlessly nudging the wheel in the directions commanded by our GPS. “Make a legal U-turn if possible,” (you’ve zoned out again and missed your exit).

It does make sense. I’ve noticed, myself, if I’m driving with a fellow passenger giving me directions I tend to remember the way more easily than if I’m simply riding along with someone explaining the route. It does appear that it’s better to be “doing” than “viewing.” Then, once again we’re talking about movement, exercise and physical activity.

Dr. Fields also states that, “Building brains by exercise has been shown to provide animals with an increased cognitive reserve, meaning that after brain injury or disease that kills or damages healthy neurons, animals that have been forced to do reps on the exercise wheel before a brain injury, do far better in recovering. The animals forced to work-out also have much slower cognitive decline in aging compared to sedentary cage-mates, because the loss of brain cells is a normal process of aging.”

 

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