We’ve always known exercise is good for your body, but recent research revealed it’s also good for your brain. Doctors as the University of Pisa set out to find if physical activity can make you think faster, improving memory and learning as well as the brain’s rate of repair. While memory and other higher-level cognitive functions have been examined before, sensory functions were generally thought to be hardwired in adults. Lead author of the study Claudia Lunghi told Medical Daily, “We are the first to show that physical exercise can promote plasticity in a sensory cortex, in our case the visual cortex.”
Previous work showed improvements in rats; keeping them moving improved visual cortex connections, which affect eyesight. It was discovered that exercise can form new neural pathways to manifest in the brain, which may lead to beneficial side effects like strengthening amblyopia (lazy eye). Sedentary animals had comparably worse eyesight. Furthermore, rats that ran on a wheel showed improve function of lazy eye more quickly than sedentary ones. The recent study published in Current Biology showed the same could be true of humans.
Researchers tested 20 adults, first covering one eye on each participant as they relaxed and watched a movie. The covered eye is strengthened by attempting to compensate for the lack of visual input; a measurement of this change is an expression of the brain’s visual plasticity. While still wearing the patch, the study participants then rode a stationary bike for 10 minutes at a time while they rewatched the movie. The exercise wasn’t even particularly stressful — a pace not much faster than a walk.
Afterward, a simple visual test revealed the differences between the covered and uncovered eyes was more extreme after exercise. This implies that exercise, even moderate, short term exercise, can affect areas of the brain previously though resistant to change. The implication is that exercise may alter or improve other areas of the brain, specifically through adulthood.
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