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Want to improve long-term memory? This will help…

Think that improving your long term memory is all brain training and omega-3 supplements? Think again. A new study from researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta suggests that working out at the gym for as little as 20 minutes can improve long-term memory.

Memory exercisePrevious studies have shown that memory may be improved by several months of aerobic exercises, such as running, cycling or swimming. However, the findings of the new study – published in the journal Acta Psychologica – demonstrate that a similar memory boost can be achieved in a much shorter period.

Exercise protects against depression

A new study, published in the journal Cell, investigates the mechanisms behind the protection from stress-induced depression offered by physical exercise. 

Support for depression and mental healthExercise has well-known benefits against symptoms of depression.

Last year, an updated systematic review by UK researchers analyzed 35 randomized controlled trials on the subject involving a total of 1,356 participants diagnosed with depression.

The systematic review found that exercising was as beneficial for people with depression as psychological therapy or taking antidepressants. However, the researchers cautioned that higher quality studies are needed to confirm the results.

Scientists know that during exercise, there is an increase in skeletal muscle of a protein called PGC-1a1. The researchers behind the new study – from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden – wanted to see whether this protein increase might be implicated in the protective benefits of exercise.

Genetically modified mice with high levels of PGC-1a1 in skeletal muscle (that showed many characteristics of well-trained muscles) were exposed – along with normal mice – to a stressful environment in the lab. This involved being exposed to loud noises, flashing nights and having their circadian rhythm reversed at irregular intervals.

After 5 weeks of being exposed to mild stress, the normal mice developed symptoms of depression, whereas the genetically modified mice displayed no depressive behavior.

“Our initial research hypothesis was that trained muscle would produce a substance with beneficial effects on the brain,” says Jorge Ruas, principal investigator at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet.

Investigating the genetically modified mice further, the researchers made the discovery that – as well as the elevated levels of PGC-1a1 – the mice also had higher levels of KAT enzymes. These enzymes convert kynurenine – a substance formed during stress – into kynurenic acid. The exact function of this acid is not known, but patients with mental illness are known to have high levels of it.

Kynurenine conversion process ‘may be protective mechanism’

When normal mice were given kynurenine as part of the study, the researchers found that they exhibited symptoms of depression. However, when the elevated PGC-1a1 mice were given kynurenine, their behavior seemed unaffected.

The researchers also noticed that even when the PGC-1a1 mice were administered kynurenine, their blood did not show raised levels of kynurenine. This is because the KAT enzymes in the trained muscles of the PGC-1a1 mice were able to quickly convert it to kynurenic acid. The researchers think that this quick conversion process therefore, is a protective mechanism.

“In neurobiological terms, we actually still don’t know what depression is,” says Mia Lindskog, researcher at the Department of Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet. “Our study represents another piece in the puzzle, since we provide an explanation for the protective biochemical changes induced by physical exercise that prevent the brain from being damaged during stress.”

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How Inactivity Changes the Brain

By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS

Exercise and brain developmentA number of studies have shown that exercise can remodel the brain by prompting the creation of new brain cells and inducing other changes. Now it appears that inactivity, too, can remodel the brain, according to a notable new report.

The study, which was conducted in rats but likely has implications for people too, the researchers say, found that being sedentary changes the shape of certain neurons in ways that significantly affect not just the brain but the heart as well. The findings may help to explain, in part, why a sedentary lifestyle is so bad for us.

Until about 20 years ago, most scientists believed that the brain’s structure was fixed by adulthood, that you couldn’t create new brain cells, alter the shape of those that existed or in any other way change your mind physically after adolescence.

But in the years since, neurological studies have established that the brain retains plasticity, or the capacity to be reshaped, throughout our lifetimes. Exercise appears to be particularly adept at remodeling the brain, studies showed.

But little has been known about whether inactivity likewise alters the structure of the brain and, if so, what the consequences might be.

So for a study recently published in The Journal of Comparative Neurology, scientists at Wayne State University School of Medicine and other institutions gathered a dozen rats. They settled half of them in cages with running wheels and let the animals run at will. Rats like running, and these animals were soon covering about three miles a day on their wheels.

The other rats were housed in cages without wheels and remained sedentary.

After almost three months of resting or running, the animals were injected with a special dye that colors certain neurons in the brain. In this case, the scientists wanted to mark neurons in the animals’ rostral ventrolateral medulla, an obscure portion of the brain that controls breathing and other unconscious activities central to our existence.

The rostral ventrolateral medulla commands the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which among other things controls blood pressure on a minute-by-minute basis by altering blood-vessel constriction. Although most of the science related to the rostral ventrolateral medulla has been completed using animals, imaging studies in people suggest that we have the same brain region and it functions similarly.

A well-regulated sympathetic nervous system correctly directs blood vessels to widen or contract as needed and blood to flow, so that you can, say, scurry away from a predator or rise from your office chair without fainting. But an overly responsive sympathetic nervous system is problematic, said Patrick Mueller, an associate professor of physiology at Wayne State University who oversaw the new study. Recent science shows that “overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system contributes to cardiovascular disease,” he said, by stimulating blood vessels to constrict too much, too little or too often, leading to high blood pressure and cardiovascular damage.

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