While the idea that our brain cells continually adjust, reorganize and rewire themselves in adulthood is now widely held, there are still plenty of questions about why, when and how this brain plasticity happens. The answers researchers are now finding suggest that there’s a simple way to keep your brain vital and vibrant: hit the gym.
An interesting new study from Italy finds that exercise seems to enhance adult brain plasticity. Measuring changes in the brain’s visual cortex, researchers say the study offers hope to people with conditions like amblyopia (aka “lazy eye”), and traumatic brain injuries.
Moderate amount of exercise was enough to improve brain plasticity. Researchers speculate the gains come from a decrease in GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
Researchers put 20 adults through two tests of binocular rivalry (patching one eye for a short time to create imbalances that are a measure of visual plasticity, and can then be tested by showing each eye incompatible images). In the first test, the participants sat still while watching a movie with one eye patched, to unbalance this binocular rivalry. In the second test, their eye was still patched, but this time, they sat on cycling machines, pedaling for 10-minute intervals. Sure enough, that moderate amount of exercise was enough to improve neuroplasticity. Researchers speculate the gains come from a decrease in GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. (And while the average age of the participants was 22, lead authorClaudia Lunghi, of Italy’s University of Pisa, speculates the results would have been the same in an older population.)
“It is already well known that physical exercise can improve cognitive abilities and memory--higher brain functions for which neuroplasticity is crucial,” she says. “Our study is more surprising because it indicates that moderate levels of physical exercise can promote plasticity in the visual cortex, too, a structure that is thought to be lacking plasticity in adulthood. It indicates that the effect of physical activity on brain plasticity is pervasive and very strong. Imagine how important it is to enhance plasticity in case of brain injury, for example, when new connections and circuits need to be ‘built’ to recover.”
Another new study from Rockefeller University revealed intriguing data about timing. Looking at the effect of stress on brains, researchers found that even in the face of repeated stress, windows of brain plasticity occur, which could mean that properly timing medical treatments could make them more effective.
Studies like this are important since chronic stress leads to changes in brain wiring that can leave it “trapped in states of anxiety and depression,” the researchers write. “But even under repeated stress, brief opportunities for recovery can open up.”
The study looked closely at glutamate, the chemical signal found in stress-related disorders, including depression, finding that "even after a long period of chronic stress, the brain retains the ability to change and adapt. This sensitive window could provide an opportunity for treatment, when the brain is most responsive to efforts to restore neural circuitry in the affected areas."
What can life-changers do to promote that kind of plasticity? There’s no need for expensive games or elaborate “brain training” to change your brain plasticity. Paying attention to the basics will keep your neurons primed for all the growth that’s possible.
Eat right. While the average brain is only about 2 percent of total body weight, Dalhousie University reports that our brains use about 20 percent of our energy.
Exercise, in different ways. While any workout can promote neuroplasticity, different types help in different ways—workouts like t’ai chi involve the sensory brain more; yoga promotes meditation, and dancing stimulates balance. So mix it up.
Challenge your noggin. Crossword puzzles can help. Looking at elderly people, one study found that even sporadic puzzle-doers delayed the onset of accelerated memory decline by 2.54 years.