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Even modest physical exercise enhances memory performance right away


Even extremely mild exercises may strengthen the connection between areas of the brain involved for memory development and preservation, according to researchers.

People who do some yoga or tai chi each day are more likely to recall where they left their keys. Even extremely mild exercises may boost the connection between areas of the brain important for memory creation and preservation, according to researchers from the University of California, Irvine and the University of Tsukuba in Japan.


The researchers observed that a single 10-minute bout of modest exercise may provide significant cognitive advantages in a study of 36 healthy young individuals. The scientists studied people’ brains using high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging immediately after exercise sessions and found improved connection between the hippocampus dentate gyrus and cortical regions connected to precise memory processing.


The findings of their research were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today.


“The hippocampus is crucial for the formation of new memories; it’s one of the first areas of the brain to decline as we age — and much more severely in Alzheimer’s disease,” said Michael Yassa, a UCI professor and Chancellor’s Fellow of neurobiology and behavior. “Enhancing the hippocampus’ function holds a lot of potential for improving memory in daily situations.”


The neuroscientists discovered that the degree of enhanced recollection was predicted by the extent of increased connection.


While previous research has focused on how exercise promotes the generation of new brain cells in memory regions, Yassa, director of UCI’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and the recently launched UCI Brain Initiative, said that this new study demonstrates a more immediate impact: strengthened communication between memory-focused parts of the brain.

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“We don’t rule out the prospect of new cells being created,” he added, “but it’s a process that takes a little longer to play out.” “What we found was that these 10-minute intervals of exercise had improvements very quickly.”


Yassa emphasized that a little amount of physical exercise may go a long way. “It’s great to see more individuals keeping track of their exercise habits,” he added, “for example, by counting the amount of steps they take.” “Even small walking breaks throughout the day may have a significant impact on memory and cognition,” says the study.


Yassa and his colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Tsukuba are expanding this line of research by testing older adults who are at higher risk of age-related mental impairment and conducting long-term interventions to see if regular, brief, light exercise done daily for several weeks or months can improve the structure and function of the brain in these subjects.


“Clearly, knowing the exercise prescription that works best in the elderly is critical so that we can offer suggestions for preventing cognitive deterioration,” he added.

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