By Alex Brown | Contributor
Exercise can undoubtedly have many health benefits. It is known to keep the musculoskeletal system healthy, improves metabolic function, joint mobility, increases energy levels, and has multiple mental health benefits. Exercise seems to be the fool proof way to lead a healthier and happier lifestyle, which has also been implicated in improving our memory. Researchers from the University of Geneva have shown that following a short, intense exercise session, memory improves, and new motor skills can be acquired.
Immediately following exercise, it is common to feel happy, owing to the release of endocannabinoids, which are small molecules produced by the body during exertion. They circulate through our blood and cross the blood-brain barrier, where they bind to specialised receptors and trigger the euphoric feelings. Additionally, endocannabinoids bind to receptors in the hippocampus, the main brain structure implicated in memory, which led research lead Kinga Igloi to suggest a link between sport and memory.
To understand the effect of sport on motor learning, researchers evaluated memory test performances of 15 young and healthy men, who were non-athletes. The group of men was split into 3 with each group having to complete different volumes of exercise; one group did 30 minutes of moderate cycling, another 15 minutes of intensive cycling at 80% of maximum heart rate, and a final group that did not exercise. The memory exercise included a series of four dots, which would intermittently change into a star. Each time a dot changed into a star the participants had to press the corresponding button as quickly as possible. The study was published in the journal, Scientific Reports. Blanca Marin Bosch, one of the researchers, explained the experiment:
“It followed a predefined and repeated sequence in order to precisely evaluate how movements were learnt. This is very similar to what we do when, for example, we learn to type on a keyboard as quickly as possible. After an intensive sports session, the performance was much better.”
As well as promising results from the memory tests, researchers also observed changes in the activation of certain brain structures using MRI, as well as evaluating endocannabinoid levels with blood tests. Functional MRI analysis found that the faster the individual performed in the memory test, the more the hippocampus and caudate nucleus (brain structure involved in motor response) were activated. Blood test results were also encouraging; higher endocannabinoid levels followed intense physical effort, leading to better brain activation and better performance. Endocannabinoids are involved in neuronal connections, and therefore act on long-term potentiation, which is the mechanism for optimal memory consolidation.
A previous study by the same research team, similarly demonstrated the positive effect of exercise on memory, however instead focused on associative memory. Conversely, these previous findings indicated that moderate intensity exercise produced the best results. Collectively, the findings from both studies indicate that not all forms of memory use the same mechanisms, and that not all sports intensities will have the same effects. However, it is important to note that in all cases exercise improves memory more than no movement.
In providing key neuroscientific data, studies such as these offer new strategies for memory improvement and preservation. Exercise is an easy to implement, minimally invasive and inexpensive method, and has many potential uses.
Kinga Igloi suggests,
“For example, would it be useful to schedule a sports activity at the end of a school morning to consolidate memory and improve learning?”
Additionally, the neuroscientists are exploring memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s, and how exercise could aid its prevention. People as young as 25 may experience subtle memory problems characterised by hippocampus overactivation. These deficits could be warning precursors to Alzheimer’s and the authors are currently evaluating the extent to which exercise could help compensate for these.