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Surprising Science

How Exercise Improves Brain Performance & Treats Mental Disorders

New research has found a genetic link between exercise and brain performance, implying that physical activity could treat disorders like ADD and ADHD, especially during youth. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Scientists have identified a gene which helps determine to what extent exercise improves learning and memory function. Scientists have long known that exercise gets the blood flowing, pumping more oxygen into the brain, but Dartmouth’s David Bucci wants to know what physiological changes occur when there is more oxygen in the brain. By finding a genetic link between exercise and mental performance, Bucci may be able to treat mental disorders by prescribing physical activity. “This could mean,” said Bucci, “that you may be able to predict which ADHD child, if we genotype them and look at their DNA, would respond to exercise as a treatment and which ones wouldn’t.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Bucci’s research identified the mechanism through which exercise improves brain function. Called ‘brain derived neurotrophic factor’, or BDNF, the mechanism has proven more influential in adolescents than adults. Bucci, who has been critical of the use of psychotropic drugs to treat disorders like ADD and ADHD, said: “The implication is that exercising during development, as your brain is growing, is changing the brain in concert with normal developmental changes, resulting in your having more permanent wiring of the brain in support of things like learning and memory.” 

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