Exercise the Body, Improve the Mind

Exercise may enhance neuroplasticity in adult brains


Is it possible to "train" your brain? By training your body, perhaps.

A new study from Italy found that exercise may enhance neuroplasticity in adults. This finding comes as hopeful news for patients with conditions like amblyopia and traumatic brain injury, researchers say.

Amblyopia, also known as lazy eye, is poor vision in an eye that did not develop normally during early childhood. This condition typically results from a failure to use both eyes together. If left untreated, amblyopia is often irreversible.

Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to modify its own structure and function to adapt to changes both inside and outside the body. This ability to change is an essential element of behavior, learning, memory and brain repair. Neuroplasticity is greatest in early life. It is generally thought to decline with age. This decline in flexibility over time is especially pronounced in the brain's visual cortex.

For this study, Claudia Lunghi, PhD, of the University of Pisa in Italy, and Alessandro Sale, PhD, of the National Research Council's Neuroscience Institute, measured the visual cortex neuroplasticity of 20 adults using a simple test involving eye patches.

Most of the time, both eyes work together to send one image to the brain. But when one eye is covered for a short period of time, that eye becomes stronger as the brain attempts to compensate for the lack of visual input. The strength of the resulting imbalance between the eyes is a measure of the brain's neuroplasticity. This can be tested by presenting each eye with incompatible images.

Drs. Lunghi and Sale used this test on participants two times. In one test, participants with one eye patched watched a movie while relaxing in a chair. In the other test, participants with one eye patched rode a stationary bicycle for 10-minute intervals during the movie.

These researchers found that neuroplasticity in these participants appeared to be enhanced by the exercise.

Drs. Lunghi and Sale said they now plan to investigate the effects of exercise on neuroplasticity in patients with amblyopia.

This study was published Dec. 7 in the journal Current Biology

The European Research Council funded this research. Information on conflicts of interest was not available at the time of publication.