It’s hardly news that a routine of physical daily exercise benefits the body — and there’s hardly anything that it doesn’t benefit — your motor skills, memory, disease immunity, overall mood, and daily energy level, even if your routine is as simple as running for a few minutes every day. What’s still obscure are the changes taking shape in your brain during and after your daily exercise regimen. Neuroscientists are still beginning to get a picture of what these processes look like.
Now, project scientist Hui-quan Li and professor Nick Spitzer, both of the University of California San Diego, have recognized several key neurological modifications in the brain following periods of sustained exercise among lab mice. The group of lab mice that exercised frequently, were able to do something that the control group had not: they switched the neurotransmitters in their brain, allowing them to pick up superior motor ability.
“This study provides new insight into how we get good at things that require motor skills and provides information about how these skills are actually learned,” said Spitzer, who is the Atkinson Family Chair in the Biological Sciences Section of Neurobiology and serves on the board of directors at the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind.
Spitzer’s lab had previously unmasked the process of neurotransmitter switching in the adult mammalian brain, intrigued by what such chemical changes in the brain could mean for patients suffering from depression. While depression has been stigmatized and misunderstood for many years as something that people can somehow will themselves out of or improve if their fortunes improve, the real problem is a chemical imbalance. Now Spitzer and colleagues have found similar chemical signal flipping happening in the brain under healthy circumstances.
For their new study, Li and Spitzer put one group of mice on a week-long exercise program. Nothing too complicated — just taking their running wheels for a spin, while the other group had no access to a running wheel. Tested afterwards, the exercised group had picked up some critical motor skills — holding fast to a rotating rod, or rapidly making their way across a balance beam, outperforming the mice who didn’t exercise.
Analyzing the brains of their runners, Li and fellow researchers had learned that a cluster of neurons in a region of the brain called the caudal pedunculopontine nucleus (cPPN) switched their neurotransmitters. The cPPN, which relays sensory information to the cerebral cortex and was once thought to initiate movement, altered the neurotransmitters in the mice from acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter motor neurons send to activate muscles, to GABA, gamma-aminobutyric acid, involved in relaxation and skill learning.
To further confirm their findings, the researchers then used a molecular structure to block the GABA switch. When this happened, the mice were unable to retain their newly found balancing skills after being given another weeklong trial with the same exercise.
So what do the results mean for science? According to Li, it significantly highlights the significance of exercise — and that even a little can go a long way at improving ourselves mentally, even if much of the globe is dealing with being trapped inside in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This study shows that it’s good for the brain to add more plasticity,” says Li. “For people who would like to enhance their motor skill learning, it may be useful to do some exercise to promote this form of plasticity to benefit the brain.” If you want to take on difficult sports when we’re no longer sheltering in place, such as surfing for example, it might be good to consistently run on a treadmill to practice abilities like balance while you’re staying at home.
The researchers think this may be more than just a single revelation about neurotransmitter switching, and that they may be just around the corner of a discovery even more intriguing. It may be possible, for example, for neurotransmitter switching to implement changes to our key motor skills, that in the not too distant future, we might be able to acquire certain skills of movement even without exercise. There is also the likelihood that we are only beginning to understand the benefits of this new motor skill learning — that it could help in the treatment of numerous neurological disorders by boosting the nervous system.
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