Researchers have found that vigorous exercise stimulates the production of a protein in the brain called "noggin". When mice were artificially given extra doses of this protein, they became "little mouse geniuses", according to the doctor responsible for this research at the Northwest University in Chicago. More interesting still is the fact that exercise had a similar effect on their intellectual ability, raising their noggin level accordingly.

These results seem to further support the theory that exercise can protect us from dreaded age-related brain diseases such as Alzheimer's. It is known that as the brain ages, adult stem cells do not divide as readily as other stem cells, but increased amounts of noggin help keep the brain active as it counters this aging slowdown.

When mice exercised on wheels and negotiated mazes, after one week their noggin levels rose and their levels of bone morphogenetic protein (BMP), which slow down the necessary cell dividing process, fell by 50%. This was a double benefit to keeping the brain cells active. There is also evidence that this happens during exercise in humans which is another reason why exercise is good for us as we get older.

Normally, as we age, the rate at which our body makes new cells slows down and consequently our memory function declines. Regular exercise can counteract this by increasing the noggin and therefore the rate at which new cells are produced. Even a modest amount of exercise has a positive effect on noggin levels and the brain's ability to learn.

These new studies reinforce what was discovered earlier by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute – that running boosts the development of new nerve cells and improves learning and memory in mice. Their test compared the memory skill of sedentary mice to those of mice that exercised freely on a wheel. The "fit" mice quickly located a memorized platform, going straight to it, while the sedentary mice took slower routes and longer times to find it. Researchers then looked for changes in the nerve cells of the two groups and found that the mice that had exercised had 2.5 times more new nerve cells than those that did not. The new cells were mainly in the hippocampus, the area of the brain used in memory. While the causal link between exercise and the regeneration of new brain cells is still a mystery, the message is clear – exercise is good for you, both physically and mentally.


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