Working Out Your Brain

Neuroscience_Neurology2.jpgIn nature’s original design plan, the brain was the leader for coordinating our physical activities: the “motor high-command.” It comes as little surprise then, that exercise strengthens the brain’s interconnections, and rejuvenates the mind.

The chemical link between the mind and body is best exemplified by the brain derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF), a protein found in our brain which helps brain cells to stay healthy, sprout new connections, and develop plasticity (the ability to form new connections between cells). Previous experiments have shown that short-term and long-term exercise both lead to a release of BDNF from various parts of our brain, more so from the cortex, basal forebrain and hippocampus, which are areas considered vital for learning, higher thinking, and memory.

A new study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, actually confirms that the more intense the exercise, the more amount of BDNF released. The study, carried out at the Texas Tech University, recruited two groups of 15 cyclists who were assigned “heavy” and “light” graded intensity exercises. Their serum BDNF and mental cognition were measured before and after the test. While heavy exercises were associated with both increased BDNF levels and improved cognition test scores, the study has not conclusively demonstrated that the improvement in mental function due to heavy exercise is linked exclusively to increased BDNF release. According to Lee Ferris and James Williams, authors of the paper, the study could be underpowered (low numbers of cyclists), and future studies with larger numbers of participants could prove the definitive link.

However, this study, like other animal studies in the past on exercise-induced BDNF release, raises the issue whether regular aerobic exercise should be incorporated in fitness regimes aimed at the elderly and those with cognitive decline. Sweaty workouts could be more effective, as it turns out, than crossword puzzles in the regeneration of the aging brain.


Ferris L T, Williams J S, Shen C. The Effect of Acute Exercise on Serum Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor Levels and Cognitive Function. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 39(4):728-734, April 2007

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
See All Posts By The Author