Two new studies find exercise grows MORE and BETTER brain cells.
Great Minds Move is UnSit’s tagline and for good reason, IT'S TRUE!
When we launched our company two years ago we decided to focus on the mental benefits of staying out of your chair and moving. After all, it's obvious that walking benefits your health in dozens of ways while sitting is detrimental to your health. All of the companies selling standing desks tout the wellness benefits and it's true. But in the modern work environment we’re working our brains, planning, thinking, creating, developing software, spreadsheets, writing legal documents, dreaming up new ideas for books movies and more. Our mental fitness is crucial for all of these tasks. And everyone would welcome a medicine that helps prevent dementia. That medicine is exercise.
A new study with mice finds that physical activity not only increases the number of new neurons in the brain, it also subtly changes the shape and workings of these cells in ways that might have implications for memory and even delaying the onset of dementia.
The brain is a dynamic, active organ forming new neurons and neural connections throughout life, especially in areas of the brain related to memory and thinking. This process of creating new neurons is called neurogenesis and and exercise improves neurogenesis. What wasn’t clear until now is whether exercise merely produced more neurons or are these new neurons qualitatively different. There are many studies of lab rats showing that exercise doubles or even triples the number of new brain cells. Researchers at the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, have been examining how exercise alters the brain and they wanted to find out whether exercise just makes more neurons or does exercise make better neurons.
Last year, in an important study published in NeuroImage, the researchers found that newly formed brain cells in adult mice that had been exercising did seem to be qualitatively different from sedentary (ie: sitting) mice.
By tracking and labeling connections between brain cells the scientists learned that brain cells of animals that exercise had newborn neurons with longer dendrites, the snaky tendrils that help to connect the cells into the neural communications network. They also found that more of these connections led to portions of the brain that are important for spatial memory, which is our internal map of where we have been and how we got there. This type of memory is often diminished in the early stages of dementia.
This new finding that exercise not only produces MORE new brain neurons but BETTER ones is huge. But now the researchers now wanted to find out if it took a lifetime of exercise to produce these beneficial results or do such benefits to the brain start immediately after we begin to exercise.
So they ran a new study, which was published last month in Scientific Reports, comparing exercising and sedentary (ie: sitting) mice.
When the scientists examined brain tissue, they found that the mice that exercised had far more new brain neurons than did the brains of the sedentary mice, even though the mice had only been exercising for a week.
Interestingly, these new neurons were larger and, as in the earlier study, displayed more and longer dendrites than similar neurons in the sedentary animals. In effect, the young neurons in the brains of exercising mice appeared to be more mature after only a week of exercise than brain cells from inactive animals.
The new brain cells were better integrated into the overall brain circuitry, too, with more connections into portions of the brain involved in spatial and other types of memory. Most surprising to the scientists, these cells also proved to be less easily activated by neurochemical messages to fire rapidly, which is usually a hallmark of more mature neurons. The new neurons remained calmer and less prone to excitability than those of sedentary animals’ brains.
Henriette Van Praag, a principal investigator at the National Institutes of Health and senior author of this new study says “this provides more evidence that brain cells produced as a result of exercise are not just quantitatively but qualitatively different than other neurons and these differences are evident very soon after exercise begins.”
Perhaps most important, the new brain cells in the mice that exercise tended to integrate into and bulk up portions of the brain that,are associated with early memory loss and dementia, she adds.
Of course, this experiment used mice, which are not people. But Dr. Van Praag says, “I think it is a very good idea for the sake of the brain to be moving and active.”
So if you’re sitting down while reading this, GET UP and order an UnSit Treadmill desk. Or get outside and move, your brain and your body will thank you. And who knows, you may just think of the “next big thing….”