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Researchers identify molecule responsible for cognitive benefits of exercise

October 14, 2013

Exercise is a crucial component of healthy aging, whether it is in the form of going for a walk each morning, doing several laps in the pool or pedaling a stationary bike. Few people question the significant physical benefits of working out - lower blood pressure, healthier cholesterol levels, increased mobility, just to name a few - but what has been less clear is whether exercise can have an impact on cognitive function. A variety of studies have suggested that it does, and new research from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School sheds some light on why these benefits exist, according to findings published in Cell Metabolism. 

Increased molecule production
The researchers were interested in discovering what role exercise plays in the production of a molecule known as irisin. Through a study involving mice, they determined that endurance activities spurred the production of this molecule in the brain, and speculate that it has properties that can protect the brain from damage. Their suspicions were confirmed when they artificially raised the levels of irisin in the blood and saw improvements to memory and learning. Not only do the findings solidify the cognitive benefits of exercise, but they could be used to create new treatments for common health issues associated with aging. 

"Our results indicate that FNDC5/irisin has the ability control a very important neuroprotective pathway in the brain," said study leader Dr. Bruce Spiegelman.

Support for previous research
Scientists have previously believed that exercise may be one of the best ways to protect the brain from damage, according to The New York Times. Previous research has found that exercise tends to increase the activity of neurons, and the most recent findings offer some insight as to why. Not only that, but scientists believe that cardiovascular health, which is certainly improved with exercise, can play a role in one's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and dementia. 

Many different pieces of research have strengthened the link between cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's, according to ABC News. Previously, scientists have found that adults in their 40s and 50s who have high levels of cholesterol are about three to five times more likely to develop dementia when they're in their 60s and 70s.