Study: Short spurts of exercise improve brain function, may make you smarter

PORTLAND, Ore. — Much has been written about the great mental health benefits that come with regular exercise. Now a new study shows that hitting the treadmill every morning — even for a short period of time — offers another brain benefit: it may make you smarter.

Researchers from the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland identified a gene in mice that is activated by only a short burst of exercise. The gene is similar to human genes that act to prime the brain for learning. The gene, called Mtss1L, improves the connections between neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory.

Prior research on animals and humans showed that regular exercise promotes general brain health, but it has been difficult to isolate which parts of the brain are enhanced and how they are improved by exercise. After all, a healthy heart oxygenates the entire body, including the brain.

“Previous studies of exercise almost all focus on sustained exercise,” explains lead researcher Dr. Gary Westbrook, senior scientist at the OHSU Vollum Institute and a professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine, in a statement. “As neuroscientists, it’s not that we don’t care about the benefits on the heart and muscles but we wanted to know the brain-specific benefit of exercise.”

The researchers created an experiment that measured the brain’s response to single, short bouts of exercise in otherwise sedentary mice. The mice were placed on running wheels for short periods of time and ran a few kilometers in two hours. When extrapolated to human equivalents, the exercise is about the same as 4,000 steps.

Researchers found an increase in synapses in the mice’s hippocampus after the running session. They found that the gene Mtss1L increased during exercise. This gene, which had been largely ignored in earlier studies, is responsible for encoding a protein that causes the bending of the cell membrane, promoting growths on neurons where synapses form.

The exciting finding means that these short exercise sessions were enough to give the brain a supercharge when it comes to learning.

“Exercise is cheap, and you don’t necessarily need a fancy gym membership or have to run 10 miles a day,” says Westbrook.

The study is published online in the journal eLife.