Molecule Produced During Exercise Boosts Brain Health

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runner smallA large body of research has shown that exercise is good for the brain. While it’s known that exercise can boost cognitive function and lessen symptoms of neurological diseases such as depression, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease, the mechanisms underlying these effects are unclear. One important player is thought to be a growth factor named Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).

Now investigators have isolated a molecule that is produced during endurance exercise that increases BDNF expression to exert significant neuroprotective effects. Named after the Greek messenger Goddess Iris, Irisin has previously been linked to health benefits attributed to exercise, including converting white fat (used to store excess calories) into brown fat (which increases burning of excess calories). Irisin has also been shown to improve glucose tolerance, suggesting a potential role in preventing diabetes.

In a new study published in the October 10 issue of the journal Cell Metabolism, researchers report that artificially increasing irisin levels in the blood resulted in increased expression of BDNF, activating genes that improve cognition while guarding against neurodegenerative diseases.

“Our results indicate that FNDC5/irisin has the ability control a very important neuroprotective pathway in the brain,” says Dr. Spiegelman. The researchers next plan to work on developing a stable form of the irisin protein that can be given to mice by injection and may augment the brain’s natural anti-degeneration pathways.

Source: Wrann et al. Exercise induces hippocampal BDNF through a PGC-1/FNDC5 pathway. Cell Metabolism, October 2013.

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