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Dopamine enhances brain function and reaction times during exercise

Exercise is associated with improved cognitive performance, and a new study from the University of Portsmouth has found that dopamine plays a central role in this relationship. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and hormone that is commonly associated with feelings of pleasure and motivation. It is known to increase when you work out, and the research suggests that this surge of dopamine enhances brain function.

Study significance

The researchers discovered that dopamine not only increases during exercise but is also crucial for quicker reaction times. 

The experts noted that this discovery opens up new possibilities for treating cognitive health issues, as dopamine significantly impacts conditions like Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, ADHD, addiction, and depression.

Faster reaction time 

The team utilized advanced brain imaging techniques, specifically a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner, to measure dopamine release in the brain. 

Remarkably, participants showed increased dopamine release while cycling in a lying position inside the PET scanner, correlating with improved reaction times.

Boosting brain function 

Dr. Joe Costello, from the University’s School of Sport, Health & Exercise Science (SHES), emphasized the novelty of this research in humans. 

“We know cardiovascular exercise improves cognitive performance, but the exact mechanisms behind this process have not been rigorously investigated in humans until now,” said Dr. Costello.

“Using novel brain imaging techniques, we were able to examine the role dopamine plays in boosting brain function during exercise, and the results are really promising. Our current study suggests the hormone is an important neuromodulator for improved reaction time.”

“These findings support growing evidence that exercise prescription is a viable therapy for a host of health conditions across the lifespan.”

Focus of the study 

The research comprised three experiments with 52 male participants. The first involved cognitive tasks performed at rest and during cycling, allowing the team to track dopamine movement in the brain. 

The second experiment tested cognitive performance improvement through forced muscle movement via electrical stimulation. The third combined voluntary and involuntary exercise methods.

Critical new insights 

The results showed cognitive performance enhancements only in experiments involving voluntary exercise. Soichi Ando, associate professor in the Health & Sports Science Laboratory at the University of Electro-Communications in Japan, explained the significance of the study.

“We wanted to remove voluntary muscle movement for part of the study, to see if the process in which acute exercise improves cognitive performance is present during manufactured exercise. But our results indicate that the exercise has to be from the central signals of the brain, and not just the muscle itself,” explained Professor Ando.

“This suggests that when we tell our central command to move our body during a workout, that’s the process which helps the dopamine release in the brain.”

Improved cognitive function 

Previous studies by the team explored the connection between oxygen levels, cognitive performance, and exercise. They found no significant change in reaction times under low oxygen levels (hypoxia), reinforcing the theory that brain-regulating hormones like dopamine are the key drivers of improved brain function during exercise.

“These latest findings support our previous theory that cognitive performance during exercise is affected by changes to brain regulating hormones, including dopamine,” said Dr. Costello.

“There could also be a number of other psychophysiological factors including cerebral blood flow, arousal and motivation that play a part.”

According to the researchers, further studies are urgently needed to fully understand how dopamine release is linked to cognitive performance following exercise. 

The study is published in The Journal of Physiology.

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