I suppose we could file this in the “now you tell me” department. A team from UCLA, led by Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, Ph.D., reported this week that animals that exercise are better protected against central nervous system trauma than animals that are not active.
From the paper, “Brain and Spinal Cord Interaction: Protective Effects of Exercise Prior to Spinal Cord: Injury
These findings ... imply that the level of chronic activity prior to a spinal cord injury could determine the level of sensory-motor and cognitive recovery following the injury. In particular, exercise prior to the injury onset appears to foster protective mechanisms in the brain and spinal cord.
In fact, the paper isn’t really about neuroprotection in advance. It’s about understanding how exercise (and by inference other lifestyle modifications) affect brain and spinal cord chemistry and how that is then related to behavior and function. Dr. Gomez-Pinilla has for many years studied a neurotrophin (a growth factor, or nerve vitamin, if you will) called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).
BDNF is a crucial molecule in the response of nerves to damage (it enhances what is called plasticity). In a paper, "Voluntary Exercise Induces a BDNF-Mediated Mechanism That Promotes Neuroplasticity
,” co-authored with Reggie Edgerton, Ph.D., Gomez-Pinella noted this: “It appears that BDNF plays a central role in the molecular mechanisms by which exercise translates into changes of neuronal plasticity and function in the neuromuscular system.”
The role of BDNF in activity-based rehabilitation or locomotor training isn’t fully understood, but it’s clear that the molecule is related to exercize and that it plays an important role in nerve recovery.
Turns out BDNF is also closely linked to the function of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that modulates memory, cognition and emotions. Said Gomez-Pinilla, “… our results suggest the possibility that SCI increases the vulnerability to emotional and cognitive disorders.”
Gomez-Pinilla and his group found that SCI depleted BDNF immediately after injury:
Our results provide evidence for a coordinated response of the brain and spinal cord to SCI. Interestingly, exercise provided before the injury onset showed a protective action in the brain as well as in the SC as evidenced by its counteractive effects on the injury-related reductions of most of the molecular systems under study. These results emphasize the capacity of exercise to recruit molecular adaptations that can enhance plasticity in the brain and spinal cord.
...Our results show that SCI reduced levels of BDNF and related plasticity markers in the hippocampus, and indicate that the SC contributes to maintain BDNF levels in the brain. In addition, based on the fact that the reduction of BDNF was accompanied by changes in proteins related to the function of BDNF on synaptic plasticity, it is assumable that these molecular adjustments have functional consequences.
...These findings suggest that an active lifestyle may confer the CNS with the capacity to defend against neurological and cognitive weaknesses after SCI. In particular, our results may be significant to understand the influence of pre-injury conditions such as lifestyle factors on the capacity of patients for healing following neurological damage. The fact that pre-injury conditions can have an impact on the degree of recovery may also help explain the high degree of individual variability in the patient response to treatment.
What’s it all mean? This research is about understanding the molecular response to trauma, with an eye toward improving that response. There may not be an obvioius path to a therapy yet but the evidence certainly supports the active lifestyle.
Every wonder why many neuroscientists are avid exercisers? This is why: They read the literature. Gomez-Pinilla and others have found that exercise boosts BDNF. Good for the body, and the mind.
Gomez-Pinilla also advocates getting plenty of sleep and dietary modification to enhance brain health. Dietary constraints, for example, have been shown to enhance learning and memory. Reducing calories per meal or every-other-day-fasting had an effect on mental health.
Anti-oxidant rich foods such as blueberries increase synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus, correlated with improvements in spatial memory. In contrast, decreasing serum levels of vitamin E were found to be associated with poor memory performance in older people.
Moreover, a recent study
found that vitamin E improves lifespan, mitochondrial function, and tests of neurological performance in aging mice.
Gomez-Pinilla has also studied curcumin
, the yellow curry spice associated with Indian food; it might also be neuroprotective. He has also studied omega-3 fatty acids
– the primary constituents of fish oils. These have been found to increase hippocampal BDNF and enhance cognitive function while reducing oxidative stress under challenging conditions.
Work out, sleep late, eat Indian food, stay healthy and live longer? It’s not that easy, of course, but it’s important to keep some balance in one’s lifestyle. And to appreciate what’s been discovered about how to control brain chemistry toward better health.