Building Stronger Brains Through Exercise

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Neuroscience research shows that exercise may benefit brain growth and development even more than we’ve realized, especially in relation to learning and memory.

Scientists have known for a long time that exercise is good for mental functioning. For one thing, our brains need oxygen to function, and even moderate exercise helps pump more oxygen-rich blood into the vessels that nourish our brain cells. But some researchers are beginning to think that improved mental acuity is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of exercise on brain functioning.

The science news source Science Daily has reported the findings of a study that was published in the online edition of Neuroscience. It was conducted by a team of student researchers, spearheaded by associate professor David Bucci at Dartmouth College, and it suggests that exercise can have a far greater impact on the brain than anyone previously thought. In fact, depending upon a person’s age, genetic predisposition, and the type and quality of exercise they get, there’s some evidence to suggest that exercise can produce neurobiological changes in a person’s brain structure and functioning.

Bucci’s interest in the relationship between exercise and brain functioning was piqued by anecdotal evidence from observers at summer camps.They noted that children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) who were very physically active seemed to respond better than their sedentary counterparts to behavioral interventions designed to curb their ADHD symptoms.

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So he put a team of graduate and undergraduate investigators onto the task of gathering empirical data from laboratory experiments with rats, testing whether physical exercise could be linked to improved brain functioning, especially learning and memory. The team conducted a series of experiments, which produced some interesting findings. In early experiments, the team found that rats exhibiting ADHD-like behavior reduced those types of behaviors with exercise, and the effects were greater with female rats, compared to males. This result was analogous to findings on the effects of exercise on ADHD symptoms with male and female humans.

A later study investigated a mechanism through which exercise seemed to improve learning and memory. The mechanism, known as the “brain derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF), has been shown to be involved in brain growth and development. What the researchers found was that the degree of BDNF expression in exercising rats was positively correlated with better memory. Further, exercising as an adolescent had longer-lasting effects compared to the same duration of exercise when done as an adult. This seemed to imply that exercise plays an important role, especially during times of growth and development, in the kinds of changes the brain undergoes related to learning and memory.

Naturally, one would want to know whether the laboratory studies with rats would translate into similar findings with humans. And the team’s latest paper reports on an experiment using Dartmouth undergraduates and individuals recruited from the Hanover community as subjects. What Bucci and his team found in their latest study is that, “depending on the person’s genotype for the trophic factor [BDNF], they either did or did not reap the benefits of exercise on learning and memory.” This led the team to conclude that in the future it might be possible to predict which children with ADHD might respond well to exercise as a treatment for their symptoms. This is a significant finding, because the dominant treatment for ADHD children for years has been stimulant medication. And concerns have grown about the lack of knowledge about the long term effects of such treatment on brain development and various other aspects of physical health. But now it appears that children might be effectively screened for alternative treatments. Children with the right genotype, for example, might be effectively treated with exercise therapy as opposed to medication, while medication could be reserved for those children who are less likely to respond to alternative methods.

The fact that exercise is good for our overall health, including our cognitive functioning, is hardly new or shocking news. But the finding that exercise might actually affect how the brain grows, develops, and functions is a whole different matter, and one that begs further investigation. There are many questions still to be answered. But it’s a line of inquiry that Bucci, his colleagues, and his students intend to continue pursuing.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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