- There’s plenty of research that exercise is crucial for good brain health as we age.
- A new study linked those benefits to a specific enzyme produced by your liver when you work out.
- By isolating that enzyme, the brain-boosting benefits of exercise could theoretically be put in a pill or infusion.
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Extensive research shows exercise has a wealth of benefits for human health, including for our brain health as we age.
But someday, science might be able to give us some of the cognitive benefits of working out in a pill or infusion, no sweating required, suggests a new study, published July 10 in Science.
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco looked at the difference between elderly mice who exercised and those who didn’t. They found that older mice who exercised had higher concentrations of a certain liver enzyme, called Gpld1, that was correlated with better cognitive function.
Cross-referencing with human blood samples, researchers found the same: higher levels of this enzyme in healthy, active elderly humans, compared to their less active peers.
The team then took a step that mirrored previous research studies, where scientists rejuvenated older mice by injecting them with blood from young, healthy mice.
The UCSF team injecting sedentary mice with plasma from mice who exercised, and thereby increasing their levels of Gpld1. As hoped, they saw an improvement in their cognitive health without changing their exercise habits.
In one final test, the researchers genetically-engineered the livers of the mice to produce more Gpld1, and tested their memory and cognition. The results were striking. Within three weeks they saw similar results as six weeks of regular exercise, according to the study, including the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus.
“When I saw these data, I was completely floored.” Saul Villeda, senior study author and assistant professor of anatomy at the University of California San Francisco said in a press release. “To be honest, I didn’t expect to succeed in finding a single molecule that could account for so much of the benefits of exercise on the brain.”
Although there’s more research needed to find out how exactly to apply this to humans, this could potentially be a game-changer for frail, older adults, or anyone unable to exercise, who still want to reap the benefits of fitness for a healthy brain.
“If there were a drug that produced the same brain benefits as exercise, everyone would be taking it. Now our study suggests that at least some of these benefits might one day be available in pill form,” Villeda said in the press release.
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