Six minutes of intense exercise increases a crucial molecule in your brain: ScienceAlert

Six minutes of intense exercise increases a crucial molecule in your brain: ScienceAlert

Six minutes of high-intensity exercise is enough to produce a key protein in the brain, one that is important for brain formation, function and memory, and which has been implicated in the development of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The specialized protein in question is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and it promotes both the growth and survival of neuron cells in the brain, as well as facilitating the development of new connections and signaling pathways.

“BDNF has shown great promise in animal models, but pharmaceutical interventions have so far failed to safely harness the protective power of BDNF in humans,” says environmental physiologist Travis Gibbonsfrom the University of Otago in New Zealand.

“We saw the need to explore non-pharmacological approaches that could preserve the brain’s capacity that humans could use to naturally increase BDNF to aid in healthy aging.”

In this study, 12 physically active volunteers (aged 18 to 56) were put through three tests to see which was best at generating BDNF in the brain: 20 hours of fasting, 90 minutes of cycling or 6 minutes of vigorous cycling.

The short and intensive cycling produced the best results in terms of BDNF production. In fact, it increased blood BDNF levels by four or five times, compared to a small increase after light exercise, and no change with fasting.

The next question is why this happens – and that is something for a subsequent study. Ultimately, high-intensity exercise can be used as a practical and affordable way to keep the brain healthy and protect against the development of disease.

It is possible that the increase in platelets that occurs naturally with exercise may explain these findings. Platelets store a large amount of BDNF, which may explain the peak that coincides with intense cycling.

Alternatively, the increase could be caused by the brain switching between fuel sources after intense exercise, the researchers say, forcing the body to draw on lactate instead of glucose reserves.

“This substrate switch allows the brain to use alternative fuels and initiates the production of key neurotrophic factors such as BDNF,” says Gibbons.

The team is now keen to add more experiments to the mix, such as three full days of fasting, to see how this affects BDNF levels in the blood. The combined effects of fasting and intense exercise is another potential avenue to explore.

We now have a number of studies linking exercise with benefits that can be felt in the brain, whether it’s improving concentration or boosting cognitive function, and it’s likely that there are many more discoveries to come.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that exercise benefits brain health at all stages of life,” says Kate Thomas, exercise physiologist and study author at the University of Otago.

“These data point to a pathway where intense exercise can play a role. Fortunately, exercise is widely available, equitable and affordable.”

The research is published in Journal of Physiology.

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