A growing collection of research highlights the enormous benefits of exercise for physical and mental health. A regular fitness routine has been found to improve health, energy, mood, and sleep.
The new research suggests that exercise can also improve the ability to master skills that require balance, coordination, reaction time, and speed.
While the advantages of exercise are well documented, the neurological changes which drive these benefits are largely unknown. The researchers set out to investigate what happens inside the brain during exercise that leads to positive outcomes.
By comparing the brains of active and sedentary mice, the experts identified key neurological modifications following sustained exercise. More specifically, the team pinpointed neurons that switched their chemical signals after physical activity.
The neurotransmitter switching strategy helped the mice acquire skills involved in motor learning.
Study co-author Professor Nick Spitzer is the Atkinson Family Chair in the Biological Sciences Section of Neurobiology and a director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind.
“This study provides new insight into how we get good at things that require motor skills and provides information about how these skills are actually learned,” said Professor Spitzer.
In Professor Spitzer’s laboratory, the team had previously confirmed that neurons in the adult mammalian brain have the ability to change their transmitter identity in response to sustained stimuli. The researchers studied the role of neurotransmitter switching in depression, and then turned their focus to learning how this phenomenon may be involved in healthy conditions.
Study co-author Hui-quan Li said the current findings underscore the importance of exercise, even at home during the current pandemic quarantine situation.
“This study shows that it’s good for the brain to add more plasticity,” said Li. “For people who would like to enhance their motor skill learning, it may be useful to do some exercise to promote this form of plasticity to benefit the brain. For example, if you hope to learn and enjoy challenging sports such as surfing or rock climbing when we’re no longer sheltering at home, it can be good to routinely run on a treadmill or maintain a yoga practice at home now.”
The researchers concluded that neurotransmitter switching provides the basis by which sustained exercise, such as running, benefits motor skill learning. This presents a target for the treatment of movement disorders.
“With an understanding of this mechanism comes the opportunity to manipulate and to harness it for further beneficial purposes,” said Professor Spitzer. “In the injured or diseased individual, it could be a way of turning things around to give the nervous system a further boost.”
The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.