Harvard scientists have identified a natural protein linked to endurance exercise that promotes brain health and encourages the growth of new nerves involved in learning and memory.
The finding, reported by scientists from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in the journal Cell Metabolism, may explain why endurance exercise improves cognitive function, particularly in older people. If the protein — known as FNDC5 — can be developed into a drug, it might lead to improved therapies for such neurodegenerative diseases as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, according to the researchers.
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"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, of Dana-Farber and HMS.
For the study, researchers isolated FNDC5 from mice engaging in exercise — running on a wheel — and gave it to non-exercising mice. They found the protein, which is produced by muscular exertion and released in the bloodstream, effectively turned on genes that promote the development of brain cells and synapses — connections between those cells — involved in learning and memory.
Spiegelman cautioned that further research is needed to determine whether giving FNDC5 actually improves cognitive function. But he said the preliminary findings are "exciting" and suggested they could lead to the development of a drug that helps deliver the brain-power boost provided by exercise.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.
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