Exercise alters brain chemistry to protect ageing synapses: Study

A new study has found that when older adults stay active, their brains have more of a class of proteins that enhance the connections between neurons to maintain healthy cognition. 

The study has been published in the ‘Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.’ 

This protective impact was found even in people whose brains at autopsy were riddled with toxic proteins associated with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. 

“Our work is the first that uses human data to show that synaptic protein regulation is related to physical activity and may drive the beneficial cognitive outcomes we see,” said Kaitlin Casaletto, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology and lead author on the study. 

The beneficial effects of physical activity on cognition have been shown in mice but have been much harder to demonstrate in people. 

Casaletto, a neuropsychologist and member of the Weill Institute for Neurosciences, worked with William Honer, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and senior author of the study, to leverage data from the Memory and Ageing Project at Rush University in Chicago.  

“Maintaining the integrity of these connections between neurons may be vital to fending off dementia since the synapse is really the site where cognition happens,” Casaletto said. 

“Physical activity — a readily available tool — may help boost this synaptic functioning,” she added. 

Honer and Casaletto found that elderly people who remained active had higher levels of proteins that facilitate the exchange of information between neurons. This result dovetailed with Honer’s earlier finding that people who had more of these proteins in their brains when they died were better able to maintain their cognition late in life. 

To their surprise, Honer said, the researchers found that the effects ranged beyond the hippocampus, the brain’s seat of memory, to encompass other brain regions associated with cognitive function. 

“It may be that physical activity exerts a global sustaining effect, supporting and stimulating the healthy function of proteins that facilitate synaptic transmission throughout the brain,” Honer said. 

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