Exercise Is The Most Powerful Technique To Keep Our Brain Sharp
Unfortunately, we can’t go hard forever. But in the future, that might not be a problem: New research has revealed how to harness the cognitive benefits of a workout — without the actual workout. Scientists think this help slow aging in the brain. A study published Thursday in Science suggests the benefits of exercise run in the blood and may be able to be transferred from one swoll organism to another, less-swoll one.
Researchers report that unexercised, aged mice who received blood plasma donations from exercised mice improved their performance on spatial memory tests and showed fewer markers of inflammation related to aging. The authors suggest that these improvements occurred because exercise releases a series of circulating factors (like proteins) into the bloodstream. Saul Villeda, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of anatomy at The University of California San Francisco, said that one specific protein abundant in the liver appears to be especially important. It’s called Glpd and it sends a crucial message to the body.
“I think it’s sort of signaling to your body: repair yourself or restore yourself,” Villeda explains.
The study builds upon the larger idea that aging in the brain isn’t inevitable, and that the basic lifestyle tools we have to stave it off can be further honed to keep brains sharp into old age. It’s possibly a step towards an exercise pill that’s intended to keep the brain swole, not the body — though Villeda cautions that this is far in the future.
Numerous studies have suggested that exercise can help slow cognitive decline. The mechanisms for that differ, but a working idea is that exercise triggers a series of changes in the body, including the release of certain blood factors that may confer benefits, the study notes. Villeda calls the blood a “conduit” for all the organs in the body to communicate with one another, which suggests that might help transfer exercise-related benefits from one creature to another. In the study, a group of aged mice (18 months old) was given access to a running wheel all the time. Another group of sedentary mice was provided with nesting materials (to promote more chilling and less running). Then, blood plasma (which is the white-ish part of blood that contains all the circulating cells and proteins) was taken from each group and injected into two additional groups over three weeks.
The mice with their fresh runner-blood injections then performed a water-based maze test — they had to find a platform to get to safety — and a fear conditioning test. These tests are designed to test spatial learning memory. If you’ve ever had a moment when you realize that you can’t find your car in the parking lot anymore, you’ve experienced a lapse in that type of memory, Villeda explains.
“All of a sudden, you might see this older individual using their car alarm to try and find their car because they can’t quite remember where their car was,” he says. “Those are the types of impairments that already are occurring with just normal age before you get dementia or disease.”
The mice who received blood plasma transfusions from the exercised mice were faster to learn the location of the dry platforms in the maze compared to those that got plasma from sedentary mice. In the fear-based test, the mice were quicker to freeze in response to a context clue – suggesting that they were faster to learn what might cause them harm. In mouse-years, you might think of these aged mice as 70-year-olds, Villeda says. The improvements seen in the mice who received plasma donation were the equivalent of turning back the clock decades, he explains:
“We’re reversing it probably back to the late 30s, early 40s. But that’s a significant improvement for these animals.”
This study suggests that these transfusions may help to preserve memory functions that once existed in younger animals, Villeda says — his team found that they were able to reverse some of the animal’s cognitive impairments. What these transfusions can not do is boost memory — the goal is to prevent decline, not add benefits.