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Seniors: 28 Jul 2008
Keeping your mind in top shape while you age.
Old brains, new cells
A 20-minute walk with the dog may not send you to the Olympics -- but it may help you keep that Olympic-calibre brain as you age.
Dr. Brian Christie of the Division of Medical Sciences at the University of Victoria was one of the first researchers to demonstrate the now widely-accepted notion that exercise can create new brain cells, or neurons, and that these new brain cells can result in better learning and memory skills.
The effects of exercise, he says, are quite pronounced in seniors, even if they don't engage in intense exercise.
"That's the beauty of it. Just 20 minutes of exercise, a couple of times a day, are enough," he says. "Even for those who are less mobile, there's always a way to get some exercise. My mom, after her hip replacement, started gently riding a stationary bike and doing yoga. When the weather gets cold, I tell her she can always go for a walk at the mall, or keep busy walking around the house."
Christie was first attracted to this research area by exercise's positive effect on neuron creation and cognition. But, he says, new neurons can't account for the total brain gain from exercise. After all, how can new brain cells get access to old memories? So now, in research funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Christie is looking at what happens to the brain cells you already have when you exercise. And, it turns, out, there's a lot going on.
When people exercise, he has found, the structures that enable brain cells to talk to each other are improved. Dendrites, which carry electrical signals from cells to synapses, become longer and reach farther, while synapses, which help neurons communicate with target cells, become more numerous. As well, the synapses become more plastic -- able to make connections and increase communication between neurons -- after exercise.
Christie thinks that a big part of the secret is that getting your heart pumping sends blood flowing through your brain. The increased blood flow, in turn, carries more growth factors, more evenly, to more parts of the brain. Growth factors stimulate new neurons and new connections among neurons.
So far, research has found that the gains in brain function from exercise seem to affect mostly memory and learning. Now, Christie is looking at whether more intense exercise for longer periods of time can affect other areas of the brain, improving brain function beyond memory and learning.
Dr. Christie's research provides yet more reason for seniors to stay physically active. By being their own Olympians, seniors can help keep their brains, as well as their bodies, nimble.
For more information, visit www.impact.cihr.gc.ca.
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