How exercise affects the brain, and who it benefits

June, 2012

New research indicates that the cognitive benefits of exercise depend on the gene variant you carry.

I’ve mentioned before that, for some few people, exercise doesn’t seem to have a benefit, and the benefits of exercise for fighting age-related cognitive decline may not apply to those carrying the Alzheimer’s gene.

New research suggests there is another gene variant that may impact on exercise’s effects. The new study follows on from earlier research that found that physical exercise during adolescence had more durable effects on object memory and BDNF levels than exercise during adulthood. In this study, 54 healthy but sedentary young adults (aged 18-36) were given an object recognition test before participating in either (a) a 4-week exercise program, with exercise on the final test day, (b) a 4-week exercise program, without exercise on the final test day, (c) a single bout of exercise on the final test day, or (d) remaining sedentary between test days.

Exercise both improved object recognition memory and reduced perceived stress — but only in one group: those who exercised for 4 weeks including the final day of testing. In other words, both regular exercise and recent exercise was needed to produce a memory benefit.

But there is one more factor — and this is where it gets really interesting — the benefit in this group didn’t happen for every member of the group. Only those carrying a specific genotype benefited from regular and recent exercise. This genotype has to do with the brain protein BDNF, which is involved in neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity, and which is increased by exercise. The BDNF gene comes in two flavors: Val and Met. Previous research has linked the less common Met variant to poorer memory and greater age-related cognitive decline.

In other words, it seems that the Met allele affects how much BDNF is released as a result of exercise, and this in turn affects cognitive benefits.

The object recognition test involved participants seeing a series of 50 images (previously selected as being highly recognizable and nameable), followed by a 15 minute filler task, before seeing 100 images (the previous 50 and 50 new images) and indicating which had been seen previously. The filler task involved surveys for state anxiety, perceived stress, and mood. On the first (pre-program) visit, a survey for trait anxiety was also completed.

Of the 54 participants, 31 carried two copies of the Val allele, and 23 had at least one Met allele (19 Val/Met; 4 Met/Met). The population frequency for carrying at least one Met allele is 50% for Asians, 30% in Caucasians, and 4% in African-Americans.

Although exercise decreased stress and increased positive mood, the cognitive benefits of exercise were not associated with mood or anxiety. Neither was genotype associated with mood or anxiety. However, some studies have found an association between depression and the Met variant, and this study is of course quite small.

A final note: this study is part of research looking at the benefits of exercise for children with ADHD. The findings suggest that genotyping would enable us to predict whether an individual — a child with ADHD or an older adult at risk of cognitive decline or impairment — would benefit from this treatment strategy.

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