It is a well-known fact that exercise is good for the body. It clears the mind, improving blood circulation and supplies the brain with more oxygen. According to David Bucci, an associate professor at Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, exercise also involves other factors.

He says: “In the last several years there have been data suggesting that neurobiological changes are happening – [there are] very brain-specific mechanisms at work here.”

Bucci and his team discovered that exercise has different effects on memory and on the brain depending on the person’s age, i.e. whether an adolescent or an adult exercises. They identified a gene that seems to regulate to what degree exercise provides a beneficial effect. This finding could prove significant for potentially using exercise as an intervention for mental illness.

Bucci started investigating the association between exercise and memory with one of the most frequent childhood psychological disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He voices his concerns with regard to the fact that the standard treatment for ADHD appears to consist of medical therapy, saying:

“The notion of pumping children full of psycho-stimulants at an early age is troublesome. We frankly don’t know the long-term effects of administering drugs at an early age – drugs that affect the brain – so looking for alternative therapies is clearly important.”

Prompted by anecdotal evidence from his colleagues at Vermont University, Bucci started to investigate into ADHD. Observations of ADHD children in Vermont summer camps revealed that athletes or team sports players tended to display a better response to behavioral interventions than children who were more sedentary.

Despite the absence of systematic scientific data Bucci decided to investigate the association of exercise with a reduction of characteristic ADHD behaviors. The findings were published in the latest online version of the journal Neuroscience.

Bucci immediately credits his team, saying, “the teams of both graduate and undergraduates are responsible for all this work, certainly not just me.”

Previous experiments in laboratory rats with ADHD-like behavior revealed that exercise was able to reduce the extent of these behaviors. The team also observed that in the same way as exercise affects male and female children with ADHD differently, exercise also proved more beneficial for female rats than males.

The team then proceeded to examine the dynamics of how exercise appears to improve learning and memory, the ‘brain derived neurotrophic factor’ (BDNF), which plays a role in the developing brains’ growth. They discovered that BDNF expression in exercising rats was positively connected with improved memory. They furthermore observed that the effects of exercising as an adolescent were longer lasting compared with adults who exercised for the same duration.

Bucci states:

“The implication is that exercising during development, as your brain is growing, is changing the brain in concert with normal developmental changes, resulting in your having more permanent wiring of the brain in support of things like learning and memory. It seems important to [exercise] early in life.”

Bucci subsequently progressed his new research to involve human participants, including Dartmouth undergraduates and individuals from the Hanover community, stating, “the really interesting finding was that, depending on the person’s genotype for that trophic factor [BDNF], they either did or did not reap the benefits of exercise on learning and memory. This could mean that you may be able to predict which ADHD child, if we genotype them and look at their DNA, would respond to exercise as a treatment and which ones wouldn’t.”

He declares that the saying ‘exercise is good for health’, including mental health is hardly surprising, and concludes stating: “The interesting question in terms of mental health and cognitive function is how exercise affects mental function and the brain.” Bucci and his team are currently investigating this issue.

Written By Petra Rattue