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Running protects brain from the damaging effects of chronic stress

By Connie Wan, P.h.D | October 18th, 2019

We all know that getting a little exercise helps when dealing with stress. A study conducted by researchers from the Brigham Young University (BYU), published in the journal of Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, discovers exercise — particularly running — while under stress helps protect your brain.  Specifically, BYU researchers found that running mitigates the negative impacts chronic stress has on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

Inside the hippocampus, memory formation and recall occur optimally when the synapses or connections between neurons are strengthened over time. That process of synaptic strengthening is called long-term potentiation (LTP). Chronic or prolonged stress weakens the synapses, which decreases LTP and ultimately impacts memory.  BYU study found that when exercise co-occurs with stress, LTP levels are not decreased, but remain normal.

BYU group carried out experiments with animal model (mice). One group of mice used running wheels over a 4-week period (averaging 5 km ran per day) while another set of mice was left sedentary. Half of each group was then exposed to stress-inducing situations, such as walking on an elevated platform or swimming in cold water. One hour after stress induction researchers carried out electrophysiology experiments on the animals’ brains to measure the LTP.

Stressed mice who had exercised had significantly greater LTP than the stressed mice who did not run. The researchers also found that stressed mice who exercised performed just as well as non-stressed mice who exercised on a maze-running experiment testing their memory. Additionally, the researchers found exercising mice made significantly fewer memory errors in the maze than the sedentary mice.

The BYU findings reveal that exercise is a simple, cost-effective and viable way to protect learning and memory mechanisms from the negative cognitive impacts of chronic stress on the brain.  The take home message is – if you feel stressed, get out and run!

Thanks for reading.

Journal Reference:

Roxanne M. Miller, David Marriott, Jacob Trotter, Tyler Hammond, Dane Lyman, Timothy Call, Bethany Walker, Nathanael Christensen, Deson Haynie, Zoie Badura, Morgan Homan, Jeffrey G. Edwards. Running exercise mitigates the negative consequences of chronic stress on dorsal hippocampal long-term potentiation in male miceNeurobiology of Learning and Memory, 2018; 149: 28 DOI: 10.1016/j.nlm.2018.01.008