A protein that is increased by endurance exercise has been isolated and given to non-exercising mice, in which it turned on genes that promote brain health and encourage the growth of new nerves involved in learning and memory, report scientists from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School.
The findings, reported in the journal Cell Metabolism, help explain the well-known capacity of endurance exercise to improve cognitive function, particularly in older people. If the protein can be made in a stable form and developed into a drug, it might lead to improved therapies for cognitive decline in older people and slow the toll of neurodegenerative diseases such Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, according to the investigators.
“What is exciting is that a natural substance can be given in the bloodstream that can mimic some of the effects of endurance exercise on the brain,” said Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, of Dana-Farber and HMS. He is co-senior author of the publication with Michael E. Greenberg, PhD, chair of neurobiology at HMS.
The Spiegelman group previously reported that the protein, called FNDC5, is produced by muscular exertion and is released into the bloodstream as a variant called irisin. In the new research, endurance exercise — mice voluntarily running on a wheel for 30 days — increased the activity of a metabolic regulatory molecule, PGC-1α, in muscles, which spurred a rise in FNDC5 protein. The increase of FNDC5 in turn boosted the expression of a brain-health protein, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic protein) in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory.
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