So, you already know that exercise is great for your physical health, and chances are — because you’re reading this blog — you know exercise is beneficial to your mental health, too.
However, did you know that exercise could be good for your brain in other ways, too? Specifically, helping your brain function better? Making you smarter?
While working with mice and their brains, neuroscientists out of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland have found that short bursts of exercise boost the function of a gene that is responsible for increasing connections between neurons in the hippocampus (this is the part of the brain tied to learning and memory — smarts!).
This is exciting for multiple reasons, one being that it shows a direct relationship between exercise and the brain, and not just a sort of side effect. For example, it’s difficult to determine which are the overall benefits of exercise to the muscles, heart, and liver (e.g. exercise benefits your heart and a healthy heart gets oxygen to the brain) and which are the benefits that are specifically affecting the brain.
The neuroscientists — being interested in the brain specifically, as they neuroscientists tend to be — designed a study involving otherwise sedentary mice and single bouts of exercise (in humans, this would be equivalent to a pickup game of basketball or walking 4,000 steps). They placed the mice on running wheels for specific periods of time and found that there was an increase in synapses in the hippocampus. The neuroscientists analyzed the genes that were increased in single neurons activated during the exercise.
The gene that excited them the most? Mtss1L, which encodes a protein that bends the cell membrane and, when activated, promotes small growths on neurons known as dendritic spins, the site where synapses form.
In short, the study showed that a single acute burst of exercise is enough to ready the brain for learning.
The neuroscientists plan to continue their research, and in the next stage they’re going to pair the bursts of exercise with actual learning tasks to gain a better understanding of the impact on learning and memory.