Regular exercise is not just good for your health but it can also make you smarter, a study has found. Neuroscientists, working with mice, have discovered that a short burst of exercise directly boosts the function of a gene that increases connections between neurons in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with learning and memory.
They measured the brain's response to single bouts of exercise in otherwise sedentary mice that were placed for short periods on running wheels. The mice ran a few kilometers in two hours.
The study, published in the journal eLife, found that short-term bursts of exercise -- the human equivalent of a weekly game of pickup basketball, or 4,000 steps -- promoted an increase in synapses in the hippocampus.
The neurocientists at Oregon Health & Science University in the US made the key discovery by analysing genes that were increased in single neurons activated during exercise.
During the research, one particular gene -- Mtss1L -- stood out. This gene had been largely ignored in prior studies in the brain. The Mtss1L gene encodes a protein that causes bending of the cell membrane.
The researchers discovered that when this gene is activated by short bursts of exercise, it promotes small growths on neurons known as dendritic spines -- the site at which synapses form.
The study showed that an acute burst of exercise is enough to prime the brain for learning.