Train your brain: a scientific approach and a philosophical question

brainSport people know well that a part of sport and exercise psychology is focusing on people’s motivation to exercise more. By investing more time and effort in doing sports, we improve both our energy capacity (aerobic, anaerobic) and muscle mass. In other words, we put effort in order to improve our cardio-vascular endurance and build muscle strength. We regularly try to exercise frequently since we know well the beneficial effects of physical activity and sports on our physical and mental health. However, a new research into “neurogenesis” revealed and explained that exercise not only improves our energy capacity and muscles strength, but also is responsible for the ability of certain brain areas to grow new brain cells. This is an outcome similar to the results of some previous studies, which were published back in 2006 and 2009. But, from my point of view, there is a very crucial and at the same time scary difference between these studies.

The very recent study from Harvard Medical School showed that we can foster new brain cells growth through regular endurance exercise. More specific, it was found that hippocampus, which is linked to memory and learning, is receptive to new neuron growth in response to endurance exercise. The exact mechanism of how and why this happens wasn’t clear until recent. The study shed lights on this dark side and revealed the mechanism of how the endurance exercise stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5 that is released into the bloodstream while we are breaking a sweat. Over time, FNDC5 stimulates the production of another protein in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which in turns stimulates the growth of new nerves and synapses (the connection points between nerves), and also preserves the survival of existing brain cells. In a practical point of view, the study says that regular endurance exercise, like cycling or jogging, strengthens and grows our brain. In particular, it boosts our cognitive skills, such as memory. The current findings fully support older studies and a previously discussed study, which was presented in AAP back in 2012. BUT from my point of view Harvard’s latest study also comes to a crucial turnover and also adds a crucial point to the previous ones.

Of course, the Harvard study and the other ones mentioned above share similar scientific outcomes. However, by reading the Harvard’s study and the previous ones more carefully and from a different perspective we can spot out a major difference. Obviously, since the studies share similar outcomes and we are talking about scientific papers (which almost everything stays open for future research) major differences cannot be found just by reading the results section, the numbers in tables/graphs and the proteins involved in “neurogenesis”. Surprisingly, the difference between Harvard’s study and the previous ones comes when the way we approach life is more philosophical than scientific. And I will explain this by just presenting the conclusion parts for each of the above studies.

2006 study: These results suggest that cardiovascular fitness is associated with the sparing of brain tissue in aging humans. Furthermore, these results suggest a strong biological basis for the role of aerobic fitness in maintaining and enhancing central nervous system health and cognitive functioning in older adults.

2009 study: These results suggest that the brain is a major but not the sole contributor to circulating BDNF. Moreover, the importance of the cortex and hippocampus as a source for plasma BDNF becomes even more prominent in response to exercise.

2012 study: Cybercycling older adults achieved better cognitive function than traditional exercisers, for the same effort, suggesting that simultaneous cognitive and physical exercise has greater potential for preventing cognitive decline.

Harvard study 2013: Taken together, our findings link endurance exercise and the important metabolic mediators, FNDC5, with BDNF expression in the brain. Now researchers from Harvard Medical School (HMS) have also discovered that it may be possible to capture these benefits in a pill.  The same protein that stimulates brain growth via exercise could potentially be bottled and given to patients experiencing cognitive decline, including those in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. “What is exciting is that a natural substance can be given in the bloodstream that can mimic some of the effects of endurance exercise on the brain,” said Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, of Dana-Farber and HMS and co-senior author of the research report with Michael E. Greenberg, PhD, chair of neurobiology at HMS.

And of course, these pills might be more than useful for patients experiencing cognitive decline, or are facing mobility difficulties. However, who tells me that this kind of pills won’t replace our exercise habits? Nowadays people take pills to lose weight or to gain muscles by putting exercise routines at the backseat. Just take a minute and consider the magnitude of marketing and the economical industry behind this kind of chemical substances. Then, don’t be surprised to see yourself taking “anti-exercise” pills for memory improvement in the near future. Considering all the above, my philosophical question is “does science promote our well-being or does it deliberately create more barriers to overcome?” The conclusions are yours!

About Anastasios Rodis

Anastasios Rodis is an exercise physiologist at Aspetar Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Hospital in Qatar. Anastasios holds a European Masters in Sport and Exercise Psychology (Lund Universitet, Sweden/Leipzig, Germany). He has also completed an M.Sc in Applied exercise physiology (University of Bangor, wales, UK) and a B.Sc in Sport Sciences (University of Portsmouth, UK). Anastasios has 15 years of athletic history in track and field. He has worked as a sport psychologist with elite Swedish swimmers. He has also efficiently cooperated as an exercise physiologist with Panathinaikos football club and worked with elite athletic teams, individual athletes as well as patients with musculoskeletal injuries. His main focus is the promotion of exercise and healthy lifestyle by using and combining both physical and mental techniques.
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3 Responses to Train your brain: a scientific approach and a philosophical question

  1. Agreed, good post. I always tell my athletes, when they upset about a lost, “mate this is not the Olympic Games, you lose is a good thing, now you know your weaknesses and you can improve those, so you don’t make the mistake at the Olympics”. Even Usain Bolt lost before London Olympics, it was a wake-up call to ‘hey do something about this’. Even Messi failed originally to get signed by clubs, and well look at him now.

    It’s fundamentals of human development. Kids go through, that’s how they grow up. ‘Touch this, ouch that hurts, touch it again, ouch that really hurts, OK don’t do that again’. Jump on bike, fall off, jump on again with some cognitive adjustments, a little wobble, and fall again, ok brain whats wrong?, again and make it 10m, ok brain what did we do right here? Ok let’s try repeat that….and next thing they are spinning the bike around circles at the local skate park.

    Thanks again for the blog. Just saw it, and reading parts now.

  2. opp’s i commented on the wrong post. Was meaning for the dare to win and lose.

  3. Keeр on writing, great job!

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