Exercise and memory

Most all of us would be happy to find a way to improve our memory capabilities, and study published in the journal Neuroscience suggests one way most people can enhance their memory.

Previous research has shown that exercise induces release of a protein called “brain-derived neurotropic factor” (BDNF), which stimulates the growth of new brain cells and brain cell connections, leading to better brain functioning and clearer thinking. Depending on your genes, some people produce more BDNF following exercise than other people.

This study from Dartmouth College (New Hampshire, USA) recruited 54 adults between the ages of 18 and 36. All were healthy, but none were regular exercisers. The researchers randomly divided the participants into two groups. Over a four-week period, half of them were put in a supervised exercise program of walking or jogging four times a week for at least 30 minutes per session, and the other half did not do any additional exercise; they continued their sedentary ways.

At the beginning of the study and again at the end, the participants underwent computerized memory testing. They were shown a series of pictures on a computer screen, then later shown another series of pictures, and were asked if the individual pictures on this second series were part of the first series or not.

The study subjects also underwent genetic testing to see if they possessed the genes that gave them the ability to make a significant amount of BDNF following exercise.

As an additional twist to the study, on the final day of testing, the researchers asked some of the subjects to exercise just before the testing to see if there would be an immediate boost to memory….perhaps four weeks of exercise were not needed, and just one aerobic session would be enough to improve memory?

The investigators found that yes, the four weeks of exercise were needed to improve memory, and the best improved were the ones who exercised over the four weeks and again right before the final test.

Approximately 30% of the subjects had “unlucky” BDNF genes—meaning they did not produce much BDNF following exercise—and these people did not get memory improvement following the exercise program.

Someday you will be able to get a blood test to see if you have “lucky” BDNF genes or not, but currently that test is only available in research labs. Note that this study only measured “object recognition memory”, but not other types of memory such as the ability to recall, for example, faces or names or long-term memories from childhood.

But regarding object recognition memory, some of us get more benefit from exercise than others.

We have no control whether or not we have “lucky” BDNF genes, but one of the study authors, Dr. David Bucci, notes that if you consider all types of memory, regular aerobic exercise seems to be beneficial, and, if you read this blog regularly, you know of the many other benefits: stronger bones, better sex life, diminished cancer risk, and much more.

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