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News Item: Neuroscience

Exercise Builds Strong Brains

Add one more benefit to getting off the couch and moving.  Though scientists have known for a while that exercise increases neurogenesis (brain cell production), resulting in better thinking, until now they didn’t know just how that happened.  Recent animal studies described in The New York Times [1] uncovered the process.

A chemical circulating throughout the body, bone-morphogenetic protein (BMP), curbs cell proliferation by preventing stem cells from dividing and developing into the assortment of cells that keep the body going.  The brain contains lots of stem cells just waiting to become neurons but with aging, BMP becomes more active and neurogenesis, and mental agility, declines.

Mice given access to running wheels showed drops in BMP production of about 50 percent within a week.  At the same time, the BMP antagonist Noggin (a protein that interferes with BMP’s activity) increased.  When mice were injected with Noggin, they showed great prowess in mazes and other tests of smarts.

But before drug companies rush to create a Noggin pill to be used and abused by those who want the benefits of exercise without the sweat, consider the unintended consequences of its overuse.

Noggin added to mice stem cells in petri dishes resulted in runaway production of neurons through its interference with BMP’s ability to check such growth.  Sedentary mice injected with Noggin showed similar results;  eventually the stem cells exhausted themselves and everything slowed to a crawl.

What does that mean for the real world effects of exercising?  Is it possible to overdo it?  So far there’s no evidence of that; the revved up neurogenesis eventually plateaus.

It doesn’t take much to get results, either.  So don’t wait around for the pill that does it all.  Take a walk, jog, swim or bicycle.  Even a little can keep the brain young and spry.