Just 6 minutes of high-intensity exercise could prevent Alzheimer’s disease

DUNEDIN, New Zealand — Just six minutes of strenuous exercise each day could stave off Alzheimer’s, according to new research.

Researchers in New Zealand say short bursts of activity that work up a big sweat boost a protein essential for brain formation, learning, and memory. The substance also appears to reduce the risk of other age-related neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s.

The molecule, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), increased up to five-fold after a hard session of cycling.

“BDNF has shown great promise in animal models, but pharmaceutical interventions have thus far failed to safely harness the protective power of BDNF in humans. We saw the need to explore non-pharmacological approaches that can preserve the brain’s capacity which humans can use to naturally increase BDNF to help with healthy aging,” says lead author Travis Gibbons from the University of Otago in a media release.

Dementia cases worldwide will triple to more than 150 million by 2050, according to estimates. Although there are now potential treatments for the condition, there is still no definitive cure.

The key chemical fuels neuroplasticity — the ability to build fresh connections and pathways — and the survival of brain cells. Experiments on mice have revealed that BDNF encourages the formation and storage of memories, enhances learning, and improves cognitive performance overall.

This has led to great interest in the protein among aging experts who hope to harness its powers. The New Zealand team discovered high-intensity exercise — in this case a six-minute session of vigorous cycling — worked best. Blood samples showed amounts soared four to five times more. This was compared to one day of fasting, and light exercise featuring 90 minutes of low intensity cycling.

What causes more BDNF to form?

The findings are based on 12 physically active participants (6 men and 6 women) between 18 and 56 years-old. The phenomenon may be due to the increased number of platelets (the smallest blood cells) which store large quantities of BDNF. Concentration of platelets circulating in the blood is more heavily influenced by exercise than fasting, rising by 20 percent.

The team notes that further investigations are necessary to understand the mechanisms involved. One theory is that, during exercise, the brain switches from metabolizing glucose (its primary fuel) to lactate to ensure the body’s energy demands are met. The transition from consuming sugar to the organic acid results in elevated levels of BDNF in the blood.

Research is now underway to delve deeper into the effects of calorie restriction and exercise to distinguish the influence on BDNF and the cognitive benefits.

“We are now studying how fasting for longer durations, for example up to three days, influences BDNF. We are curious whether exercising hard at the start of a fast accelerates the beneficial effects of fasting. Fasting and exercise are rarely studied together. We think fasting and exercise can be used in conjunction to optimize BDNF production in the human brain,” Gibbons concludes.

The study is published in The Journal of Physiology.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.