The Importance of Exercising the Brain – A Scientist’s View

by Carrie Bearden, Ph.D.,
Presented by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in partnership with Sage Hill School

Carrie Bearden, Ph.D.

2003/2005 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee
Associate Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and Psychology,
Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior,
University of Califonia, Los Angeles 

I was very pleased to read Dr. Adrian Preda’s recent blog posting focused on ‘exercising the brain’. I have become increasingly excited about the potential for aerobic exercise to boost neuroplasticity (i.e., the ability of the nervous system to respond to stimuli by reorganizing its structure, function and connections), and thus improve our capacity to learn. One study that I find particularly exciting is this one by Aberg and colleagues:  a Swedish population cohort study of over 1 million men, in which not only was cardiovascular fitness positively associated with intelligence at age 18, but cardiovascular fitness changes between age 15 and 18 years predicted cognitive performance at age 18.  This suggests that making these lifestyle changes can have positive and beneficial lasting effects for cognitive functioning.  I have been diving into this literature full-force as I am preparing a new intervention grant for our clinical research program for adolescents suffering from schizophrenia. I am hopeful this intervention may have the potential to really improve the lives of these teens.

The more we study it, the more it becomes clear that the adult brain is incredibly plastic. While neurogenesis is a special form of neuroplasticity, there are other mechanisms of synaptic plasticity that are less well studied, In particular, I am interested in myelination – the white matter fiber tracts in the brain – as a mechanism for synaptic plasticity (this is a great review by Fields, if you are interested!). Recently, several studies have shown large-scale changes in structural and functional connectivity in the brain in a period of just a few weeks as a function of learning a new skill, like juggling or learning to play golf. These findings of learning-related functional brain plasticity, occurring throughout the lifespan, are incredibly exciting.

There are also periods of development- sensitive periods – like the teenage years, in which the brain is particularly dynamic. I spoke about this last Thursday night at the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Sage Hill Event: The Teenage Mind: What Every Parent Needs to Know . Adolescence is also a period of significant vulnerability for the development of mood disorder, substance abuse, and other psychopathology. How can we harness this increased neuroplasticity to achieve lasting clinical change? What are some lifestyle interventions that might actually make a difference?  These are all key issues which I think we are making important strides toward addressing, but clearly there is a lot more work to be done. At the very least, the rising tide of evidence for brain plasticity offers promise for the possibility of changing and rewiring the brain.



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