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Running Improves Memory, Grows Brain Cells

Aerobic Exercise Produces the Cathepsin B Protein

© 2016 by all rights reserved; content may not be copied, rewritten, or republished without author’s written permission. Author’s Google profile.

A hamster running in a wheel; photo courtesy Doenertier82

This article was last revised on 08/19/17.

As runners, we might not all consider ourselves to be superior to sedentary folks but in all fairness, in our heart of hearts we might suspect it. As it turns out, running and other aerobic exercise does elevate us above the masses, at least with respect to health and mental functionality, all other things being equal. Let’s see how that works, shall we?

Scientists now believe that running may help boost memory. This is because the activity triggers a protein which boosts brain cell growth. Researchers at the National Institute on Ageing have found that when our muscles are exercised they produce a protein called cathepsin B. This makes its way to the brain and triggers neuron growth.

Dr. Henriette van Praag, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging, puts it this way, “Overall, the message is that a consistently healthy lifestyle pays off.” The key word here is consistently.

It should come as no surprise that one of the fundamental aspects of this healthy lifestyle is what we eat and drink. It is therefore important to follow a diet for body and brain.

Investigating the Cathepsin B Protein

Praag explains the research this way, “We did a screen for proteins that could be secreted by muscle tissue and transported to the brain, and among the most interesting candidates was cathepsin B.
Moreover, in humans who exercise consistently for four months, better performance on complex recall tasks, such as drawing from memory, is correlated with increased cathepsin B levels.”

Of Mice and Men

Praag’s team initially noticed the protein when they were studying mice which exercised regularly on wheels. The protein level rose in the blood and muscle tissue the more the mice ran.

They next noticed that when cathepsin B was applied to brain cells in their lab it initiated the production of molecules related to neurogenesis, which is the growth of neurons.

They also determined that the mice who were genetically modified so that they no longer produced the protein performed less well in memory tests.

Dr. van Praag concluded, “We also have evidence from our study that cathepsin B is upregulated in blood by exercise for three species—mice, Rhesus monkeys, and humans.”

How can we as runners tap into these benefits? Dr van Praag tells us, “People often ask us, how long do you have to exercise, how many hours? The study supports that the more substantial changes occur with the maintenance of a long-term exercise regimen.”

Exercising Regularly Helps Reduce Memory Loss

Many health experts have believed in the benefits of running or otherwise staying active for a long time now. Elisa Zied, a member of the American Dietetic Association says, “It’s a no brainer, we know that exercise is something everyone should try to incorporate.”

A new study took place at Columbia University Medical Center and suggested that exercise may improve a person’s memory. Researchers in that study were the first to track brain cells in a living brain in an effort to identify the specific part that is most affected by exercise. They determined that exercise targets the region that is associated with the age-related memory decline that typically begins around age 30.

Participants in the study who were physically active did better on memory tests than the people who neglected to exercise. Many health and nutrition experts insist that it’s just one more reason to get moving. Zied said, “We’ve known for a long time you get this burst of energy and feel-good chemicals when you exercise, so its not that much of a stretch that it is actually going to preserve your mental function as you get older.”

Increased Blood Flow is a Factor says, “researchers found that exercise boosts blood flow to a brain area involved in memory—even in people who aren’t in top shape.” The study referred to shows three months of exercise was all that was needed for people starting with low levels of aerobic fitness to increase the blood flow to that essential area of their brain and raise their scores on memory tests.

In another study done at the University of British Columbia researchers determined that consitent aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus. This is the brain area that is involved in verbal memory and learning.

Running Helps Memory Directly and Indirectly

From a direct point of view, the benefits of running come from its ability to lower insulin resistance, lower inflammation and stimulate the release of growth factors. These are the chemicals in the brain that are at least in part responsible for the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels within the brain as well as the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

From an indirect point of view, exercise has been shown to improve your mood and sleep as well as reducing your levels of stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas often cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.

Many other studies suggest that the areas of the brain responsible for controlling thinking and memory (specifically the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who run versus people who do not.

In short, if you are a runner you are doing a lot more for yourself than just keeping the weight off. If you are not a runner, why not? Do you have any thought on this that you would like to share? Please post them in the comment section below. Thanks!

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