No one can argue against exercise being good for you. Decades of research have revealed how getting our bodies in motion can offer a wealth of health benefits. Our muscles, metabolism, and immunity all improve as well as our brains. Our ability to learn and remember gets better and we may be able to ward off diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis .
Even though we know there are neurological benefits of exercise, how exactly the brain helps to prevent certain types of neurodegeneration has been somewhat of a mystery. Studies have shown a good workout can help increase the number of neurons in the brain but that only goes so far in preventing disorders. If the results seen in experiments are to be believed, an unresolved mechanism must be at play.
Now, thanks to a team at the University of Ottawa, led by Dr. David Picketts, we may have that answer. They have discovered a new path towards neurological protection in mice. The results, which can be found in the journal, Cell Reports may offer a hint as to what is happening in the human brain when our bodies work up a sweat.
The team focused on a certain breed of mouse specially designed to lack a certain molecule. It’s called sucrose nonfermenting protein 2 homolog, although it is better known as SNF2h. In mice, it can be found in neurons and helps to mature cells as well as improve mental abilities. Not surprisingly, without SNF2h, mice suffer significant troubles in the brain and usually die within four to six weeks after birth.
For the team, the mouse represented the perfect model to test the benefits of exercise. They hoped to extend the lifespan of these SNF2h-deficient animals through nothing more than physical activity. If the experiment worked, they could hone in on the mechanism in the hopes of finding that hidden benefit.
When mice were given a running wheel, they lived for much longer than the expected few weeks. Instead, they survived over 200 days. Making this result even better was that the mice showed no progression of their symptoms when they exercised. They had what they needed to move on.
As with all molecular hunts, the team used a variety of techniques to determine if there were any increases in certain proteins. They had a hunch it might be a protective protein but needed to prove their suspicions. It turns out, they were correct.
In the exercising mice, the team found an increase in a protein known as the nerve growth factor inducible, but more commonly known as VGF. It’s involved in neurological protection and appears to function in the same regions known to benefit from exercise. The result meant the team had a viable suspect. Now all they had to do was prove it.
The group returned to the lab to figure out how VGF works at the molecular level. They discovered the protein improves the overall function of a certain type of cell known as an oligodendrocyte precursor cell. As the name implies, these cells eventually turn into oligodendrocytes, which are responsible for protecting neurons. Without them, the prognosis for the local neurological environment is quite poor. For the team, this increase in precursor cells as a result of VGF made perfect sense.
It was time to go back to the mice although in this case, there were no wheels. Instead, the team provided VGF to the Snf2h-deficient mice using a virus. If they were correct, this would lead to the same type of increase in lifespan as seen in those that ran voluntarily.
The results were shocking. Instead of the few weeks of life in the untreated animals, the VGF injected mice lived much longer, comparable to the first group of exercised animals. This was in many ways a neurological miracle. By simply adding one molecule, the group could keep a mouse destined to die alive for up to ten times longer.
The results of the study are incredible for two reasons. The first is the undeniable benefit exercise provides to the brain. The other is the unlikely occurrence of a life-altering improvement through the addition of a single protein. While the group was happy to see another advantage to exercise, they were ecstatic to see the potential for treatments and therapies for brain disorders using VGF.
There is of course a rub to these results. While the VGF findings may have far greater meaning in terms of medicinal purposes, far more research is needed to demonstrate the use in other species, including humans. On the other hand, the exercise data though not as remarkable can be used today. If you are a regular exerciser, you can be sure your neurological system is benefitting. If you happen to be a couch potato, however, now you know the value of getting up and moving around on your body and your brain.
Original research article:
Alvarez-Saavedra M, De Repentigny Y, Yang D, O’Meara RW, Yan K, Hashem LE, Racacho L, Ioshikhes I, Bulman DE, Parks RJ, Kothary R, Picketts DJ. Voluntary Running Triggers VGF-Mediated Oligodendrogenesis to Prolong the Lifespan of Snf2h-Null Ataxic Mice. Cell Rep. 2016 Oct 11;17(3):862-875. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2016.09.030.