Does exercise make our brains work better?

thank you for joining us for our second Oxford Sparks Facebook live for our brain discovery week today we are joined by Heidi Johansen burg director of the Welcome Center for Integrative neuro imaging so Heidi many thanks for joining us today and firstly can you tell us a bit about your research yes sure so my research group are interested in something called brain plasticity and plasticity is basically a fancy name for change so brain change we're interested in how the brain changes in various different contexts so when we learn a new skill when we change our environment or lifestyle or when we recover from damage such as a stroke for example okay and we kind of you know – um as you can see in the background and so your research must be linked to exercising some way you can you can you explain bit more yeah sure so yes we are in one of the things were interested in is whether physical exercise affects your brain so we all know that physical activity is good for our bodies and for our physical health but increasingly it seems to be the case that researchers suggesting that physical activity can also benefit our brains and maybe benefit our thinking skills so some of the studies that we're doing are trying to test whether that's the case so if you take people who aren't typically physically physically active don't do much exercise and you enroll them in an exercise program for a few months what effect does that have on their brain and how do you test that how do you look inside the brain to see that's working so the kind of things we do are use brain scanners so we particularly use a type of brain scanner called an MRI machine magnetic resonance imaging machine so that's like the type of scanners you might find in a hospital for example so using those scanners we can take pictures inside somebody's brain and look for example that's brain activity or look at the size of different bits of the brain so we can use that to see so we scan some people at the beginning of the experiment and then people either end up doing exercise or some control condition and then a few months later we scan them all again and then we can use those scans to look to see whether there were bits of the brain that changed in the compared to the control group and what have you found so far can you let's go well yes we've got various studies in different states of completeness but for example you know one of the results that we consistently see and that also has been seen in lots of other studies around the world is that when people take up physical activity and do more exercise that seems to have a positive effect on a bit of the brain called the hippocampus seems to make it physically bigger so this bit of the brain appears to grow when we engage in exercise over a prolonged period of time and that's kind of intriguing because there's a few special features of that brain area so the hippocampus we know is particularly important in our memory function we know that the hippocampus is an area that's really vulnerable to aging so it tends to shrink as people get older and also is vulnerable to particular diseases like dementia for example and we also know that the hippocampus is one of the areas that's special because it's one of the few brain areas where it's very clear that we can make new brain cells even in our hood so the fact that that's the area that seems to change when we exercise is intriguing and potentially relevant to health aging well-being and thinking skills and is there like a particular you know activity or exercise that we do we kind of promote for the brain well that is a really interesting question and there's an open question really so our studies so far have looked at aerobic exercise for example running on a running machine or cycling on an exercise bike that kind of cardiovascular exercise obviously there's lots of different kinds of activity there's also strength training resistance training and there's at the moment there's a limited evidence pitting those different types of exercise against each other there is some evidence that adding in a strength component is particularly beneficial for the brain there's some evidence that the way in which we do exercise might matter so for example it seems to be particularly good to exercise in a group a social group setting particularly good to exercise outside and a green space I'm particularly good to combine the physical activity with some kind of cognitively demanding you know to have to think about it as you're going around which points to certain kinds of social outdoor sporty type things as opposed to say being on a running machine by yourself in the gym yeah again that's not clear from a brain perspective I mean there are very clear government guidelines for example so adults we're all supposed to be doing about half an hour of exercise a day not many of us achieve that kids the government guidelines suggest should be doing an hour a day again not many children particularly teenagers very few achieve that but it's not yet so we know what amounts of exercise are good for health in general it's not yet clear what the magic recipe should be for brain benefits of exercise and do you see a difference I mean you've touched on the children probably doing it for now but you see a different in results at different ages well that is an interesting question one of the things that our group is interested in is that is the effect of exercise on the brain in different age groups so I mentioned earlier for example the that this brain area called the hippocampus that seems to be very responsive to physical activity that that area is very relevant to brain aging and to neurodegenerative diseases there is some evidence that physical exercise might slow the effects of brain aging and might potentially delay the onset of cognitive decline you know things like dementia for example so one of the things that we're very interested in is studying the effects of physical exercise interventions in older adults with the view to taking up exercise isn't going to stop you getting dementia for example but evidence suggests it might delay the onset so that could have a massive impact if it means that people are living longer without succumbing to these late-life disease it's news Janet diseases so you know you talk about you know it might you know not cause dementia and things of that but are we born with different brains would you say yes so it like with lots of biology and behavior there's a nature nurture combination going on so yes we are people some of our brain different some of the differences between people in their brains some of that is due to genetics so we're all born a bit different however it's not just that we're wired up differently because of genetic differences there is also a very big role that experience plays so it's very clear now that the experiences that we have not only in childhood but throughout our lives that those experiences will shape our brains over and above any differences you say about that I mean as a child if you're you say you know learn a language a bit and younger on an early age or maybe you try and learn the piano would that make a difference to your brain activity yep yeah definitely so there is evidence for example that different types of expertise are let's say musicians is a good one so people who have learnt to play the piano to a high level do you have different brain so for example that there's an area of the brain here which represents our fingertips both in terms of the movement and the sensation of the fingers and those areas are bigger so there's more brain devoted to your fingers if you're a pianist compared to if you're not and there is some evidence that depending on which age you did that piano practice for example that different brain areas and that different pathways might have been responsible for those changes so like even at my age I wager the face but life but and do you think you know taking up a new activity or skill could change my brain activity yeah absolutely and your brain structure so we've done experiments they've been lots of experiments along these lines for example we did an experiment on juggling so you take you know healthy adults who can't juggle train them to juggle over a period of weeks and scan their brains and we've shown as have others that that kind of new learning learning a new skill physically grows that parts the brain that are involved in that skill so for example for juggling that would be areas that were involved in visual processing and moving your body and visual space so it seems to grow those brain areas and also seems to strengthen the pathways the connections between those brain areas and if you say you know suffer an injury to the brain can you like to stimulate recovery well that's a good question so there are ways in which either our you know behavior and training can stimulate the brain you know that's happening in all of us whether or not we have damaged so one thing that the group are interested in is whether you can harness that for say rehabilitation of difficulties with brain damage so one of the conditions that we study is following a stroke where people often have sorts of problems depending the way that stroke is but we focus particularly on problems with moving the limbs and we're interested in whether we can make use of the knowledge that we have about brain plasticity so enhance people's recovery after stroke and rehabilitation so for example we're testing not with physical exercise but whether you could deliver training so movement training and rehabilitation after stroke and do that while stimulating the brain directly using magnets and electricity in a particular way so try to harness the brain's capacity for plasticity and change tried to harness that to enhance recovery you say um obviously do this through MRI do you literally see different parts of the brain light up when you're you're doing exercise or doing a different skill or learning a new skill yeah so there's all kinds of different images that you can take with the MRI scanner and they give us different kinds of information so some of the scans that we take showers are literally like taking a picture inside the brain they show is the physical the static physical picture so you can use those pictures to see if there's a damage in caesarian down to see if there's an area that's got bigger or smaller so that's the static images which tell us about the structure and the physical properties of the brain we can also take dynamic images so take images over time that tell us about brain activity so you can put somebody in a scanner have them do something like move their hand for example and then you can look and see how the brain activity changes it's not that those areas actually light up so we tend to say say then your brain lights up when you're doing something it doesn't actually light up but we can record a signal from the brain and then process those signals on the computer and use that to identify which brain areas were active at the point that particular actions were being performed and I'm sure you've tested a variety of Ages and different groups have you ever tested like athletes do you find athletes have a different kind of brain psychology to those you know maybe don't do any kind of exercise yeah that's a good question so we haven't done any studies particularly on athletes as a group but other other groups have around the world and and also scientists have looked at different types of experts or specialists and I guess in relation to athletes they have you know they are very physically fit on the whole and they have this high level of skill and they spend a lot of time practicing a particular a particular skill so all of those things we know will influence the brain so we know that people who are fit for example tend to have a bigger hippocampus this same structure again and we know that particular types of expertise will developing high levels of skills and particular types will impact on particular brain at brain areas so some of those skill related changes would vary depending on particular type of athletic expertise the person had so coming back to the musicians for example the brain differences you'd see in musicians would vary but for say a pianist versus somebody who played the violin so you can imagine that with a violinist you have very fine-grained dexterity of your fingers that are using strings whereas the bowing hand doesn't have to develop that same level of fine dexterity so the precise details of the skill that you're training to this very high level will then be revealed in changes in particular brain regions that are needed for those precise combinations of skills and do you notice a difference between male and female brains and we have not as yet noticed differences in relation to the two plasticity or to physical exercise the those things seen in our hands to be quite similar between males and females there's a lot of research generally on differences between male and female brains and then there's awful lot of debate around that and as with lots of things there is on average there are some differences between males and females but to some degree there more characterized by overlap so you know there's a lot more similarities between males and females and there are differences even though there are certain features that on average would vary a bit between male and female brains like there would be between male and female bodies so yes there are some differences but they don't as yet seem to be particularly relevant to this question of plasticity and response of the brain to exercise and it seems such a really interesting field and you must be doing loads of research I mean how do you actually get into your field of research and so I started out I guess well going back so as a as a kid at school was a school kid I was not at all keen on science so I wasn't breaking the science at school I dropped as much science as I could so I do have a GCSE in physics but apart from that don't have science I do have a math ownable but otherwise was quite artsy at school but it was very interested in behavior in human behavior so I went to university to study psychology and philosophy which I found really fascinating but surprised myself by finding that what I was most fascinated about was how understanding the brain and the neuroscience was a really powerful way to understand behavior so I sort of despite myself went down this very scientific path actually a science was fascinating and that it can be massively creative and you know discover new things which was massively exciting and a bit different to the experience I'd had it of science at school so that's how I got into neuroscience and then that interest in behavior and what makes us who we are why do different people have different behave differently and to what extent can we understand that by understanding how the brain changes over time as we have different experiences that was my route into studying brain plasticity and we had a question that came in from an earlier talk it saying are there any thoughts on how how was the big kind of word exercise affects development and onset of things like Alzheimer's yeah that's a really good question there are thoughts on that but it's still an open question so so as I said that does seem to be evidence that some evidence that engaging in physical activity may delay the onset of age-related decline and potentially adventure how and why that happens is a really interesting question so there are and there are various hypotheses but as yet it's not entirely clear so for example there are some substances that are stimulated by physical activity in the brain which might directly work on the disease process itself so in a disease such as Alzheimer's disease we know that there are certain types of pathology and that is that accumulates in the brain and there are some evidence that that can be directly attacked if you like by substances that are stimulated by physical activity so that's one possibility it's also the case that you know there are quite general and widespread effects of exercise so for example there is increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain and that in general may have positive consequences so again it creates certain types of substances like growth factors things that just stimulate brain growth and so it might be that engaging in exercise just generally makes your brain a bit more resilient and a bit healthy to any kind of subsequent disease that that might just for example raise your thinking skills and brain resilience so that when a disease then attacks you're starting from from a higher baseline so both of those things are active and they might both be happening and not exclusive so so it might directly work on the brain to undo some of the damage or it might increase your resilience to disease attack later and finally I'll have to ask so what you know or your friends and family because they know the kind of research that you're in what would you recommend us will do in terms of exercising or learning new skill how much should we do a day or a week to kind of really try and help our brains yeah that's a good question so it's not by I don't think brain science yet has any answers as to what's the optimal amount or type perfects physical activity to do to help your brains you know however you know there are guidelines government guidelines international guidelines that suggest that adults should do half an hour a day roughly that children should do an hour a day that seems as good an estimate as any it certainly won't do brain any harm and so I think I would recommend that people you know aspire to achieve those guidelines most of us don't particularly children most children don't achieve the guidelines particularly teenagers so I think that trying to achieve those guidelines but then particularly doing that in a way that's you enjoy they're not to do in a way that makes you miserable so to do it in a way that you enjoy whether that's doing in a team doing it in a social way doing in a way that gets you outdoors so find the type of exercise that makes you feel good and happy and enjoying yourself and that will certainly do your body good but is also evidence suggests that it might also have this beneficial consequence for your brain well thank you very much Heidi for all your really insightful research that you're doing and thank you for those who have tuned in please leave your comments or any questions you might have for Heidi and we'll get Heidi to answer these at a later date but again thank you for tuning in to our Facebook live for brain discovery

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