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Newly identified protein helps explain how exercise boosts brain health

running officeI almost skimmed over this recent Forbes story on exercise and brain health because it didn't seem like news. Many of us already know that exercise can help boost the brain's cognitive abilities, reduce the risk of dementia, and aid our memory. The catch is can we explain how?

As it turns out, few people could until recently. Now researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard have identified the pathway that translates exercise into proteins that boost brain development and help aid cognition.

From the Forbes piece:

Research has discovered that exercise stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5 that is released into the bloodstream while we're breaking a sweat. Over time, FNDC5 stimulates the production of another protein in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which in turns stimulates the growth of new nerves and synapses - the connection points between nerves - and also preserves the survival of existing brain cells.


In the new study, the research team artificially increased BDNF in the brains of mice by using a harmless virus to piggyback FNDC5 molecules through the bloodstream of the mice. After seven days, researchers found a significant increase in BDNF in the hippocampus area of the mice brains - the brain area crucial for memory and learning.

As the story explains, the research team has not yet begun clinical trials with humans. But they hope to someday encapsulate this benefit of exercise in a pill that could deliver the protein FNDC5 to humans. And if this can be done, it could provide a new way to treat diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school's Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: Exercise may protect aging brain from memory loss following infection, injuryExercise may lower women's risk of dementia later in lifeStanford biostatistician talks about saving your aging brain and More research suggests brain exercises boost cognitive function, stave off dementia
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