“We tested the cognitive ability of elderly mice following defined periods of exercise and found an optimal period or ‘sweet spot’ that greatly improved their spatial learning,” says Dan Blackmore, research fellow and animal behavior facility manager at the University of Queensland Brain Institute.
The researchers also discovered how exercise improved learning.
“We found that growth hormone (GH) levels peaked during this time, and we’ve been able to demonstrate that artificially raising GH in sedentary mice also was also effective in improving their cognitive skills,” Blackmore says.
“We discovered GH stimulates the production of new neurons in the hippocampus—the region of the brain critically important to learning and memory.
“This is an important discovery for the thousands of Australians diagnosed with dementia every year.”
Dementia is the second leading cause of death of all Australians, and with no medical breakthrough the number of people with dementia is expected to increase to around 1.1 million by 2058.
The findings provide further proof that loss of cognitive function in old age is directly related to the diminished production of new neurons, says Perry Bartlett, emeritus professor at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI).
“It underlines the importance of being able to activate the neurogenic stem cells in the brain that we first identified 20 years ago,” Bartlett says.
The team explored how the production of new neurons changed the circuitry in the brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
“Using MRI, we were able to study the brain following exercise, and for the first time identify the critical changes in the structure and functional circuitry of the hippocampus required for improved spatial learning,” Blackmore says.