What if exercise could make all areas of your brain better able to learn, heal and change - in a sense, younger?
A small study published today published in the journal Current Biology suggests that it might do just that.
Previous research has shown that exercise may improve how the brain operates in high-level brain functions such as memory and thinking skills, areas that remain flexible throughout life. But the new study shows that exercise may even be able to impact how the brain works in low-level areas, previously considered hard-wired in adults.
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"We are the first to show that physical exercise can promote plasticity in a sensory cortex, in our case the visual cortex," said study co-author Claudia Lunghi of the University of Pisa in Italy. It was thought that the visual cortex "only worked with visual information, but [it appears that] physical activity can enhance it."
Co-author Alessandro Sale, a research scientist at the Institute of Neuroscience of Italy's National Research Council, first noted the effect in animals, showing that rats who ran on a wheel could recover better from amblyopia, or lazy eye, than those who were sedentary.
Still, when he and Lunghi got together to try it out in humans, they weren't optimistic, given that the visual cortex in humans is thought to lose its flexibility quickly as we age (that's why people with a lazy eye, for example, are often told they can't be treated in adulthood).
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So when the first several people they asked to perform a simple visual test after cycling on and off for two hours with one eye patched did markedly better than they did when they watched a movie with an eye patched, they were surprised – especially since the level of exercise was moderate, comparable to walking pace.
Their excitement grew as they watched the vast majority of the cyclists (over 95 percent) perform better after cycling.
"This is the magic when an experiment works well," Sale said. "I was surprised about the efficacy of the protocol, which turned out to dramatically boost plasticity even when applied for a short time period...Here we are in the domain of brain rejuvenation, something more relevant for possible therapeutic applications."
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While the findings were so striking that the researchers rushed to test the method on people with lazy eye, the implications may go far beyond treating one specific eye condition.
"This elegant demonstration by Lunghi and Sale provides evidence that the benefits of exercise on brain plasticity are far reaching, and raises the question of whether exercise should be included in therapeutic regimes," said Dr. Holly Bridge, who studies vision and the brain at Oxford University and was not involved in the current study.
Someone with a traumatic brain injury, for example, could benefit from therapies designed to take advantage of that plasticity by remolding injured areas of the brain.
And even healthy people likely benefit, the researchers said.
"A brain that is plastic again is like a younger brain," Lunghi said.