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A Magic Pill for the Brain - Running

 

David Yon, February 13, 2017

We had just crossed over Meridian Road, a busy highway, and were starting down the trail into a beautiful paradise for running, a traffic free trail that works its way around Lake Overstreet and into Maclay Gardens.   Running next to me was my doctor who had just returned from a conference on the benefits of exercise.  He was practically giddy as he said: “The evidence just keeps rolling in about the benefits of exercise, and running in specific, on our health.” As a family practitioner, Dr. Karl Hempel has always believed preventative care is his first obligation and exercise is one of the top ways to help his patients avoid the need for medical care. If there was a pill that improved or moderated declines in brain structure, size and working capacity; created favorable chemical changes in the brain that moderated unhealthy and extreme emotions; fostered neurogenesis in the brain and improved the symptoms of a number of mental health disorders, can you imagine the rush to get control it or get our hands on it?

What if I could get the patent for this pill?  “Awesome,” slipped out of my mouth. Let’s get a patent, copyright, trademark - whatever it is that we need.  Advertise it on TV and we will be rich!”  “Well,” Dr. Hempel responded, “I have already posted the secret information on my web page for the public to see.”  In fact, he had just spent a weekend at a conference where he had listened to a presentation by Heather K. Vincent, Ph.D., FACSM, entitled “Running is Medicine for the Brain.”  Dr. Vincent is the director of the UF Health Sports Performance Center and Human Dynamics Laboratory.   We have long known about the benefits of exercise on the heart, but recently more and more evidence is rolling in on the benefits of running and exercise on the brain.  In fact, when I started looking for support for Dr. Vincent’s claim, I also was amazed.  With diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s (yes, my own special interest) and dementia affecting an ever-growing part of the population, the research into the impact of exercise on the mental health of individuals is increasing. Dr. Vincent identified the following objectives for her presentation:

• Understand how regular exercise affects brain activity and physiology
• Identify the benefits of exercise on cognition, processing and task performance
• Determine dosage or intensity of exercise on mood, stress reduction and mental health conditions.

With Dr. Vincent’s consent, Dr. Hempel was quick to post the slide show with his own collection of studies on the benefits of exercise at http://www.tallahasseeprimarycare.com/healthgazette/ and to send me a copy for this column.  And it should be noted that we owe a lot of what we think we know to our rodent friends who pay a heavy price for their exercise efforts.

Dr. Vincent was able to conclude from her review that the brains of people (and mice) who exercise tend to have higher thickness in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus areas of the brain.  This in turn preserves brain size, neuron viability, and plasticity as we age. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive function, retrieving memories from the brain and helping to focus thoughts, attention and learning.  The hippocampus impacts long term memory function, spatial navigation, formation of new memories, detection of new surroundings and behavioral inhibition.  Running is a “continuity of planning and enactment toward a goal…which is cognitive function: problem solving, prediction, planning and interpretation.”  Dr. Vincent points out how as humans age and grow while participating in training, the brain matures and control of cognitive performance becomes more localized in the brain. The result seems to be a better brain that lasts longer.

During exercise neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are released in greater amounts.  There is also a pleasant release of endorphins that comes with a strong exercise effort. And then everything gets complicated.  For example: “Accumulating evidence from animal and human research shows exercise benefits learning and memory, which may reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, and could delay age related cognitive decline. Exercise induced improvements in learning and memory are correlated with enhanced adult hippocampal neurogenesis and increased activity dependent synaptic plasticity. In this present chapter, we will highlight the effects of physical activity on cognition in rodents, as well as on dentate gyrus (DG) eurogenesis, synaptic plasticity, spine density, neurotransmission and growth factors, in particular brain derived nerve growth factor (BDNF).” 

To stimulate growth in the brain and its correlating benefits (neurogenesis, improved memory and learning and less atrophy with age), Dr. Vincent recommended 45 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise (70-80% max heart rate twice a week) three times a week. 

And, I could go on and on, but for time and space.  (Well, I think I may have some brain size limits as well.)  The summary is well worth repeating though:

And I can promise that on a day like this, there is no better place to be than running around Lake Overstreet with friends, especially your doctor.