We’re all convinced that high intensity interval training (HIIT) benefits our bodies but now there is an overwhelming amount of data supporting the theory that the longevity of our brains’ health also benefits from the effects of HIIT. This is due to a protein found in the brain and spinal cord called BDNF.
What is BDNF?
BDNF is a protein in the neurotrophin family of growth factors, that promotes the survival of nerve cells by playing a role in the growth, maturation, and maintenance of these cells. It also regulates synaptic transmission and plasticity. Synaptic transmission is the process by which signaling molecules are released by a neuron and bind to and activate another neuron to acquire a particular response- an action potential. Plasticity is the ability of the synapses to strengthen or weaken over time. BDNF itself is important for long-term memory and is one of the most active of the neurotrophin proteins. Even though the majority of neurons in our brain are formed before birth, parts of the adult brain retain the ability of neurogenesis (growth and development of neurons).
Why is this important?
BDNF’s significance lies in its ability to aid in the survival and repair of brain cells. As a result, it regulates mood and cognitive function, such as learning, memory and higher thinking. Cell Metabolism published a study done by a team of Mayo Clinic researchers who suggested that increased levels of BDNF might help to reverse the cellular signs of aging. Could this be the coveted fountain of youth we have scoured the earth for?
How can we improve our BDNF?
According to multiple studies, BDNF synthesis in the brain increases with exercise, particularly high intensity exercise. This phenomenon is somewhat responsible for exercise-induced neurogenesis and improvements in cognitive function (memory, reasoning and attention). The beauty of that is we all need to exercise anyway AND high intensity workouts take up far less time from our busy schedules then an equally successful cardio or resistance training session. Get in, get it done, get out.
Neuroscience Letters published a study by a group of researchers from the University of Texas who had investigated the effects of high-intensity exercise on BDNF and found that the protein’s levels in the hippocampus of the brain were increased in the exercise groups. This suggests that exercise is linked to higher BDNF levels and improvements in cognitive functioning by delaying cognitive decline through neurogenesis enhancement. Subsequently, they found that lower levels of BDNF have been associated with depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Bruce Spiegelman, a cellular biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, has done similar case studies. He reports that the molecular process in neurons mirrors what happens in muscles as we exercise. “What was weird is the same pathway is induced in the brain, and as you know, with exercise, the brain does not move.” Referring to how the brain gets the signal to make BDNF, some scientist theorize that neural activity required to coordinate our bodies during exercise may account for changes in the brain. But it’s also possible that factors such as proteins secreted from muscle cells, could be the driving force.
The advantages of high intensity exercising are an all inclusive package. Your brain and body reap the benefits by slowing down and possibly reversing the signs of cellular aging thereby improving our body’s ability to regenerate needed neurons and muscle mitochondrial capacity.
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