Dartmouth researchers are learning how exercise affects the brain
Exercise clears the mind. It gets the blood pumping and more oxygen is delivered to the brain. This is familiar territory, but Dartmouth’s David Bucci thinks there is much more going on.
“In the last several years there have been data suggesting that neurobiological changes are happening—[there are] very brain-specific mechanisms at work here,” says Bucci, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
From his studies, Bucci and his collaborators have revealed important new findings:
- The effects of exercise are different on memory as well as on the brain, depending on whether the exerciser is an adolescent or an adult.
- A gene has been identified which seems to mediate the degree to which exercise has a beneficial effect. This has implications for the potential use of exercise as an intervention for mental illness.
Bucci began his pursuit of the link between exercise and memory with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), one of the most common childhood psychological disorders. Bucci is concerned that the treatment of choice seems to be medication.
“The notion of pumping children full of psycho-stimulants at an early age is troublesome,” Bucci cautions. “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.”
Anecdotal evidence from colleagues at the University of Vermont started Bucci down the track of ADHD. Based on observations of ADHD children in Vermont summer camps, athletes or team sports players were found to respond better to behavioral interventions than more sedentary children. While systematic empirical data is lacking, this association of exercise with a reduction of characteristic ADHD behaviors was persuasive enough for Bucci.
Coupled with his interest in learning and memory and their underlying brain functions, Bucci and teams of graduate and undergraduate students embarked upon a project of scientific inquiry, investigating the potential connection between exercise and brain function. They published papers documenting their results, with the most recent now available in the online version of the journal Neuroscience .