How Exercise Can Help Improve Memory | Health and wellness

Physical activity has already been shown to help prevent cognitive decline, but now an Argentine study goes even further, trying to prove that it may even generate new neurons in adulthood.

Neuroscientists and technologists have proven that even people leading a sedentary lifestyle have improved spatial memory after 25 minutes of exercise on an exercise bike. Physical activity is actually an opportunity to demonstrate something else: that the effort can promote the formation of neurons. “We are based on a type of spatial memory called Pattern separation (separation patterns) that are produced in the dentate gyrus, an area of ​​the brain that is small angle hippocampus, where spatial memories are processed. It is the only location in the mammalian, and therefore human, brain where neurogenesis is thought to occur; formation of new neurons. So, what we were trying to find is spatial memory, which indirectly works better if there is neurogenesis,” explains neuroscientist and co-leader of the study Fabricio Ballarini, who carries out his work at the Institute of Technology of Buenos Aires and the Institute of Cell Biology and Neurosciences of the University Buenos Aires.

The key to success is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein associated with neuronal growth and health, which also increases with exercise. This was already demonstrated in mice more than a decade ago, and now the experiment can be adapted to humans thanks to virtual reality, in which researchers from the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) and the National University of the Center of the Province of Buenos Aires (UNICEN). Spatial memory, which records information about the environment and the location of objects, declines with age and Alzheimer’s disease, so it’s important to learn simple ways to improve it.

“When studying humans, the molecular aspects cannot be analyzed for ethical reasons, so we have to observe the behavior of memory,” explains Ballarini, awakened by one of the central dilemmas of neuroscience: whether neurons can be born in adulthood. The researcher explains: “The main dogma, especially in mammals, is that we are born with a supply of neurons that die and no new ones are born. To find out, it is necessary to install a permanent camera that would record the exact moment of neuron birth. This is impossible. The only way to find out is indirectly. So our main hypothesis is that if people engage in physical activity, BDNF levels increase.”

If this happens, the researchers believe it should translate into improvements in spatial location, which is processed only in the dentate gyrus, where sprout neurons. “What we are looking for is indirect evidence that people can have neurogenesis and that it is triggered by exercise. Ultimately, the ultimate goal is to demonstrate that physical activity generates new neurons,” says the neuroscientist, who is popular in the country for his work as a popularizer. In fact, part of the funding for this research was obtained through his activities as a scientific communicator, in addition to some technology transfer funds from UNICEN and regular salary contributions from CONICET.

Unforgettable cave

A group of 98 volunteers aged between 18 and 40 entered a visual cave of sorts, a computer-generated virtual environment (CAVE) in which a desert landscape was projected onto the walls and floor to create a truly immersive experience. There they had to carefully observe and try to remember the location of a series of flags. They could virtually move around using a joystick, just like in a video game, and use multiple mountain landmarks or clouds. The built environment allowed them to maintain stable environmental variables that in a natural context would have been altered by factors such as wind, sunlight, temperature, or animal disturbance.

According to Dr. Christian García Bauza, coordinator of the laboratory where the tool was developed, the projections also made it possible “to not have to wear anything, like a helmet, so it would be more like reality.” After exiting, participants were randomly divided into two groups: one that did a 25-minute workout on a stationary bike, which included athletes and sedentary people, and another that sat down and watched a video of a bike race. This was done so that we could distinguish the mental sensations of physical activity from the effects that occur in the brain when actually performing physical activity. Twenty-four hours later, according to UNICEN researcher Florencia Rodriguez, both groups returned to the CAVE to see if they could independently find the flags they saw in the first stage. As a result, all those who exercised, including those who led a sedentary lifestyle, were able to correctly determine their location in space, while those who only watched a video of the race did not achieve this goal.

The tests were carried out in a room with visual projections on the walls and floor.metro

Finding alternatives to drugs is another motivation for the neuroscience team. “What we’re really interested in is finding problems with external stimulation that can help memory. From 40–45 years of age, memory deficits begin to be observed in healthy people, and even more so in the aging population. In some countries, at the end of the century there will be a huge number of adults with cognitive problems, both among the economically active and inactive populations,” says Ballarini. For this reason, he explains, his search is based on finding specific tools. For example, if you want to strengthen your memory, for example, by studying something, you can follow certain steps, such as being surprised, going to a certain place, taking a nap, or doing physical activity – this is the result of understanding how the brain works. “We tested it with spatial memory and now we’re going to try it with the memory of something that has nothing to do with spatial memory. We will direct him towards promoting memory,” he adds.

While this study on its own is not enough to definitively conclude that exercise produces neurons, it represents a significant step toward that goal.

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