Neuroplasticity, Brain Health and Exercise

The human brain is an astounding work of nature. With around 86 billion neurons connected by trillions of synapses, it is inherently who we are and how we think. It goes without saying that our brain plays a major role in all our body systems, working autonomously to keep us alive and maintaining our capacity to move – it’s importance cannot be understated. For many years it was widely accepted that the neurons we had in our childhood remained the same through our lifetime – that our brain was ‘fixed’. Modern science has shed light on this assumption and in fact, our brain never stops changing. It has a fascinating ability to reorganise neural pathways allowing a new skill to be learned or memorised, even when it has experienced trauma such as stroke and other brain damage. The ability of the Central Nervous System to undergo a structural and functional change in response to a new experience is referred to as neuroplasticity.

So why would an Exercise Physiologist be discussing neuroscience? Well quite simply, exercise promotes neurogenesis, the precursor to create neurons and develop new pathways – therefore increasing both grey and white matter of the brain. The implications of this are significant, as physical activity can provide health benefits to a vast range of conditions. In this blog, we will focus on two conditions, Alzheimer’s Disease and Stroke. In 2016 the World Alzheimer’s Report estimated that 47 million people are living with the condition worldwide, and this number is expected to reach 131.5 million in 2050. To date, there is no promising pharmacological intervention. A meta-analysis studying the relationship between exercise and neurogenerative disorders suggests that engaging in daily physical activity reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s by 45%. According to L. Tzu-Wei, T. Sheng-Feng and K. Yu-Min (2018), exercise can have this impact as it promotes an increase in neuronal connections and blood vascularity, whilst reducing neural inflammation and the risk of brain matter deterioration. Essentially, moderate and frequent aerobic exercise aids to provide a healthy environment for our brain cells.

Stroke is another condition that affects millions of people worldwide. A stroke occurs when the supply of blood to the brain is interrupted. It can be fatal, but in cases that it is not, it may cause permanent disability. In fact, up to 75% of stroke survivors experience upper extremity impairment that persists into the chronic stage. After the initial stroke event, rehabilitation is relied upon to increase motor function and repair movement. Initially, the rehabilitation process involves the strengthening of existing, as well as creating new neural connections, to promote healthy movement patterns. As rehabilitation progresses, skills are focused upon to further strengthen neural pathways and make them the preferred neural path, becoming an unconscious process when moving the affected limb. Whilst this form of rehab can be considered ‘exercise’ we will discuss a more traditional form of physical activity, aerobic training. C.S Mang, K.L Campbell, C.J.D Ross et.all (2014) provide a concise chart on how aerobic exercise can, directly and indirectly, effect positive change to pathways of the brain:

Whilst the process and physiological adaptation that occur is highly complex, the above chart effectively demonstrates that exercise has several positive and long-lasting impacts on the brain and the surrounding nervous system. It goes without saying that controlled physical activity should be a part of any successful rehabilitation programme.

As mentioned previously, this blog only touches on two conditions, but it is clear the benefits of exercise on our health via neuroplasticity is wide and far-reaching. Naturally more research is required to further quantify the role of exercise in this fascinating topic. Consequently, the Exercise Physiologist at Absolute Balance aim to make exercise the answer for all health conditions.

 

Ed Daccache

B.Ex.SpSc, Grad.Dip.Ex.Sc (AEP, AES) (ESSAM)
Accredited Exercise Physiologist

 

 

References:

  1. Tzu-We.i, T. Sheng-Feng., K. Yu-Min. (2018). Physical Exercise Enhances Neuroplasticity and Delays Alzheimer’s Disease. Journal of Brain Plasticity. 4(1), 95-110. DOI: 10.3233/BPL-180073

Mang. C.S., Campbell. K.L., Ross. C.J.D., Boyd. L.A. (2013). Promoting Neuroplasticity for Motor Rehabilitation After Stroke: Considering the Effects of Aerobic Exercise and Genetic Variation on Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor. Journal of Physical Therapy. 93(12), 1707-1716. DOI: 10.2522/ptj.20130053