Photo Credit: Newsweek

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to constantly lay down new pathways for neural communication and to rearrange existing ones throughout life.

Neuroplasticity work in 2 ways.

  1. It deletes old connections frequently to enable creation of new ones. This allows connections that are inefficient (traveling a longer neural route) or infrequently used (a skill no longer used, such as colouring as adults) to fade away
  2. Neurons that are high used will be preserved and strengthened (accountants and numbers) and made even denser.

With this “pruning” process, it affects our ability to learn and remember. Learning new skills require large amount of neurons to be active simultaneously, therefore, the more neurons activated, the better we learn.

Where does exercise fit in all these?

Every time your muscle contracts and relaxes, it sends our a protein called IGF-1 that travels to the brain. There, it causes the body to increase production of several chemicals. One of which, the BDNF (brain-derived neutrophic factor) fuels all the activity that lead to higher thought.

Regular exercise builds up the levels of BDNF and the brain’s nerve cells start to create new neural pathways. Every time there is new learning, it is BDNF that makes this easier because your brain now has a bigger capacity for knowledge. On the other hand, brains that are low on BDNF shuts itself to new information.

UCLA neuroscientist Fernando  Gómez-Pinilla left half of the animals alone; in the other half, he blocked the chemical’s effects with a drug. Then he subjected both groups of athletic rats to a test of wits, encouraging them to find an object that was hidden underwater. The first group easily pinpointed its location, but the second, BDNF-deprived group wasn’t nearly as quick or sharp. Nature has conducted a similar experiment on humans. In unlucky people with a faulty variant of the gene that makes BDNF, the brain has trouble both creating new memories and calling up old ones.

The Other Components of Neuroplasticity

This does not discount the need for

  • Nutrition
  • Sleep
  • Stress Management
  • Novel Learning Experience (in the form of new exercises or activities such as attending a musical or gardening session)

Other than doing lots of good for the body and being a stress reliever, exercise also makes you smarter. Yet a voluminous brain is not the requirement for intelligence, hard work in the library putting in your hours will also be necessary. Exercise does not make you an immediate genius, but it certainly makes things easier.

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