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Friday, February 3, 2012

Getting to the mind the body-sattva way

I posted Exercising the body is exercising the mind on SharpBrain on August 23rd 2008. To restart the discussion I am re-publishing it now - it should be read together with my previous post. I would like to reopen the discussion and continue it here.

We live in a culture obsessed by appearances where body is many times valued before mind. At the same time, because of this obsession with appearances, the mind partisans uphold, most times, "anti-body" values. It is my opinion that both camps are extreme and as such wrong.

Middle way, as always, is best and this is what I will try to demonstrate in my next few posts on the whole body-mind theme.

Brain Lessons Part 2

I apologize for the long delay in getting back to this column but I have a good excuse. We just recently had a baby boy that takes care right there of the physical exercise need. Between carrying the baby upstairs and downstairs, running to get the baby, getting out of the bed and picking the baby up and putting the baby down a couple of times a night no need to worry about getting my daily exercise dose…

Now, the majority of the answers to my post on the brain virtues of physical exercise suggests that most people think that the brain benefits of physical exercise are mostly to be understood as complementary effects of a healthy life style.

Is this correct? In my post today I will attempt to answer this question.

First, while generally healthier people seem to have healthier brains, the physical exercise effect on the brain seems to be independent of other things. One of the most important development in neuroscience was when the official dogma claiming that there was no neurogenesis (production of new brain cells) in the adult brain was toppled. Now we know that the brain is “plastic” meaning that, under the right circumstances, the brain can change in terms of both producing new cells and getting more cells connected to each other.

One of the places where neurogenesis has been shown to occur in the adult brain is the dentate gyrus, a strip of grey matter placed deep down in the brain. The dentate gyrus is a part of the hippocampus, the main memory structure that has been shown to play a role in the forming of new memories. What can the dentate gyrus teach us with regards to physical exercise?

Following a series of extremely thought provoking experiments researchers from the Gage laboratory at UCSD concluded that exercise leads to the production of new brain cells in the dentate. First the researchers found that mice housed in an enriched environment (a larger cage with toys, tunnels, and more opportunity for physical activity, learning, and social interaction than in standard bare cage) have an increased number of new neurons in the dentate gyrus.

The enriched environment is the mice equivalent of not only healthy but good living: leisurely enjoying life, getting both physical and intellectual stimulation, socializing with friends. Now, the fact that new neurons were produced was a big enough news in itself, but the Gage group did not stop there. Their next goal was to figure out if neurogenesis was the result of a sum of factors acting together (i.e. the enriched environment) versus a specific effect of individual factor. So, they first dissected the enriched environment in a number of “sub” environments. In their next experiment they placed the mice in a “learning environment” where they had access to a maze, a “physical exercise environment” where mice had unlimited access to a running wheel, in addition to enriched and standard (empty cage) environments. Then they compared the groups in terms of behavioral performance and eventually looked at their brains.

Their conclusion was anything but expected: while both enrichment and wheel running led to improved spatial memory function phyical exercise in a running wheel alone also promoted neurogenesis and enhanced the survival of newborn neurons in the dentate gyrus.

Bottom line: exercising seems to literally mean “exercising the brain”.

So, in lieu of conclusion, till next time I wish you all happy trails (and I don’t mean it as just trails on the paper in a paper and pencil memory task)!

© Copyright Adrian Preda, M.D.


Anonymous said...

So do you explain someone like Stephen Hawkings.

Adrian Preda said...

A great brain does not require a "perfect" body. But that is not the point here. There is a wealth of data indicating that, when given the choice, exercising is better than non exercising for the brain. No matter how many times you take your Honda for maintenance that will not make it into a Maserati. However maintenance is as essential for a Maserati as it is for a Honda, and without it, in all likelihood both cars will end up in the junkyard sooner rather than later. Think of physical exercise as a part of the required brain maintenance.