Cognitive Daily

I go for a run nearly every day. I wouldn’t consider myself a fitness buff; mainly I run so that I don’t gain weight. But according to an article in the New York Times, running might have another benefit — improving my brain’s health:

Scott Small at Columbia, for instance , likes nothing better than a strenuous game of tennis. “As a neurologist,” he explains, “I constantly get asked at cocktail parties what someone can do to protect their mental functioning. I tell them, ‘Put down that glass and go for a run.’ “

The basis for this claim was first found in research on mice: mice with exercise wheels in their cages tended to perform better on cognitive tasks. Later evidence for generating new brain material — neurogenesis — was found in mice, and later still, in humans. Can exercise actually enhance neurogenesis?

This spring, neuroscientists at Columbia University in New York City published a study in which a group of men and women, ranging in age from 21 to 45, began working out for one hour four times a week. After 12 weeks, the test subjects, predictably, became more fit. Their VO2 max, the standard measure of how much oxygen a person takes in while exercising, rose significantly.

But something else happened as a result of all those workouts: blood flowed at a much higher volume to a part of the brain responsible for neurogenesis. Functional M.R.I.’s showed that a portion of each person’s hippocampus received almost twice the blood volume as it did before. Scientists suspect that the blood pumping into that part of the brain was helping to produce fresh neurons.

This research has been supported by other studies as well, and behavioral evidence in children and adults matches the neurological data.

So physical exercise might just exercise the brain as well, and even prevent some of the mental decline associated with aging. But I really want to know is the answer to the question posed in the headline. As several Sciencebloggers have pointed out, over thirty “sciblings” met up this past weekend in New York — to get to know each other better, but also to engage in rather sophomoric revelry. Apparently I didn’t embarrass myself too badly on Karaoke night, but I almost certainly drank to much. I wonder how far I’ll have to run to make up for that….


  1. #1 quotes
    August 20, 2007

    I’m reminded of what Gretel Ehrlich said: “Walking is also an ambulation of mind.”

  2. #2 BikeMonkey
    August 20, 2007

    The PNAS study and the prior human studies mentioned in the NYT article are pretty interesting. The ongoing rodent stuff wasn’t exactly convincing, there’s always the problem of impoverished control group housing and, let’s face it, rodents aren’t very smart anyway. To confirm in humans though? cool.

  3. #3 Jim
    August 20, 2007

    I have what is referred to as ADDHD, or maybe even something like Asperger’s Syndrome, or whatever name someone wants to make up, my brain doesn’t work quite right.

    Exercise being good for the brain is really pretty obvious, both from a intellectual standpoint(The brain and the body are all part of one organism, what’s healthy for one is healthy for the other), and just from direct experience. I do a ‘Pilates for dummies’ work out every day for instance, and it pays off immediately after I’m done. Mood and focus are boosted,it works better than caffeine.

    I am pretty excited about the directions that neuroscience and the like are taking as I have been going that direction for some time in my own life, and it wasn’t that long ago that the benefits of things like yoga and martial arts on one’s mental state was considered a bunch of new-age bullshit. If I was a therapist,and I was dealing with someone depressed, the first thing I would do for someone is put them on some sort of low-impact(yoga, tai chi, pilates) type of exercise routine and diet.

    Exercise, the miracle pill, makes you smarter, happier, able to do routine tasks easier, better able to perform emergency tasks if needed, stronger,more attractive,and slows the aging process. How can you argue against something like that? Start doing it asap.:)

  4. #4 M
    August 20, 2007

    The problem with running is that it’s hard on the knees…
    So, for the time being at least, I’ll just stick to walking and hope that it has a similar effect.

  5. #5 BikeMonkey
    August 20, 2007

    M: Come to the one true path of cycling! much better for you than running.

    seriously, though, the major finding of interest, i.e., that exercise had some palpable effect on blood flow in the dentate gyrus and some aspects of cognitive performance depended on a correlation with individual changes in VO2max. Now, we don’t have all the answers from this one limited study. The people who were in the worst shape to start might have driven the effect. However, changes in VO2max are a reasonable proxy for how effective the workout regimen was, if starting points were equal. So it may be the case that walking is not as effective as more intense forms of exercise. The flip side might be that these are threshold effects and only those that start out in really bad shape will benefit. In which case the difference between no exercise and some regular exercise might mean everything. I guess we’ll have to stay tuned.

  6. #6 Peter Lund
    August 20, 2007

    “The problem with running is that it’s hard on the knees…””

    That’s mainly if you are doing it wrong (or are American-sized). You are not supposed to land hard on your feet or make big, springy jumpy steps.

    Make shorter, faster steps and watch out for the noise your feet make on the ground. The less noise the better.

    That’s the best (most operational) way to know how well you are doing in the here and now so you can correct right away instead of having to wait until the run is over and you ache all over.

  7. #7 Alvin
    August 20, 2007

    The article also notes a few studies in which neurogenesis was aided by, among other things, marijuana, alcohol, and chocolate. To hell with running! 😉

    (From the NYT article)
    “MARIJUANA: …A 2005 study on rats found that stimulation of the brain’s receptors for marijuana increased neurogenesis. ALCOHOL: A 2005 study found that mice that swallowed a moderate amount of ethanol showed more neurogenesis than teetotalers… CHOCOLATE: In a study published this year, an ingredient in cocoa, epicatechin, was shown to improve spatial memory in mice…”

    Back on topic, I wonder if the same benefits can be seen with shorter or longer periods of exercise, as opposed to the four times 1hr/day used in the study. Perhaps equal or greater benefits can be seen in just 30mins/day, or maybe even detrimental effects with longer periods due to physical stress and whatnot. Just a thought.

  8. #8 kemibe
    August 20, 2007

    I’ve run over 5,200 miles in a single calendar year and have raced about a dozen marathons. All I can say is that although I don’t think and better thanks to all this flailing around, I do think more. I’m often more focused, but with running, I can foster awful ideas with even greater clarity. I should probably just get a lobotomy, go on disability, and do nothing but run around.

  9. #9 Kevin Z
    August 21, 2007

    I’ve been running every other day for the last 3.5 months. Its been great, I feel my energy level increased, my body getting into shape and my productivity increase as well. I will continue as much as I can. In the winter I cross-country ski every chance I can get.

    Running is hard my knees and I know I probably don’t do it. I played soccer growing up and did short-distance (i.e. dashes & sprints) running, but I got sidetracked for oh, about 10 years and put on some weight. But I’m off the ciggies, off the junk food (though not entirely…), eating less more often and regularly running. Motivation mostly stems from wanting to be healthy to have fun with kids, and be around in good health for them as long as possible.

  10. #10 Archana Raghuram
    August 21, 2007

    Does walking also have the same effect? I walk every day, I don’t run.

  11. #11 JimFiore
    August 21, 2007

    I read somewhere (I forget where precisely, which is an interesting coincidence) that the exercise needs to be fairly intense. Not sprinting, mind you, or even very fast like a mile race, but something that will seriously elevate your heart rate. Walking seems to be insufficient in this regard.

    They say running is an “experiment of one”, and while I haven’t run as much as kemibe, I have averaged over 3000 miles/year for the past couple years, peaking with weeks over 90 miles. I don’t know if it makes me think more, or even more better, but it is something I enjoy and enjoy the benefits of. I can also say that I have a fondness for dark chocolate, so as noted above, that might skew any result. I have seen a few interesting combo competitions involving running and some other activity (such as weight lifting or drinking beer). If ever someone comes up with a combination 10 mile road race and chocolate fudge-eating competition, I’m you’re man.

  12. #12 Steve Higgins
    August 21, 2007

    You got plenty of exercise doing the Safety Dance!
    It was amazing ! hahah…

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