Jan. 22, 2010 -- Could you run your way to a better memory?
Earlier this week, scientists published a study adding more fuel to the growing belief that exercise boosts brain health.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted by the U.S. National Institute on Aging in Maryland, found that running led to the growth of new brain cells and improved performance.
Henriette van Praag, a scientist the National Institute on Aging, said that though scientists previously observed the effects of running on brain health, it was never clear that there was a causal relationship. With this study, she said they "got a little closer."
The scientists observed two groups of mice -- one group had access to a running wheel, the other did not. At first, during a training run, the mice were shown two boxes on a touch screen computer. If they touched the left box, they were given a sugar pellet. If they touched the right box, they were given nothing.
Then the mice were subject to a memory test involving the same squares. The more they touched the correct box, the higher they scored.
As the trial continued, the boxes were moved closer together and van Praag said that's when the effects of running were most visible.
"When we brought them close together, the effect of running kicked in at that time," she said. "Animals that did best on the test also had the greatest number of new neurons."
She said research has long shown that exercise is beneficial for brain function and memory – this study helps show why.
John Grohol, a clinical psychologist and founder of the online mental health resource PsychCentral.com, said that exercise is one of the best things you can do to keep your brain healthy.
"This study just adds to the evidence that physical activity can enhance and keep our brains healthy," he said.
Improve Your Memory With Diet, Meditation?
So what are other potential memory boosters?
Blueberries – This week, scientists published research suggesting that antioxidant-rich blueberries could improve memory in older adults.
The study, involving scientists from the University of Cincinnati, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Canadian Department of Agriculture, included volunteers in their 70s. One group drank the equivalent of 2 to 2.5 cups of blueberry juice every day for two months. The control group drank a blueberry-less juice.
The scientists said the group that drank blueberry juice demonstrated improvement on memory and learning tests. "These preliminary memory findings are encouraging and suggest that consistent supplementation with blueberries may offer an approach to forestall or mitigate neurodegeneration," the report said.
Diet – A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January 2009 found a definite link between caloric restriction and mental function.
But though experts say the phenomenon makes sense from a physiological perspective, the number of participants in the program was small, which makes it difficult to determine how the program would affect a wider population.
Meditation – "People who meditate, research has shown, have a better ability to cultivate positive emotions," Grohol said. "In doing so, they help maintain their own emotional stability which helps with overall well-being and brain health."
In May, Psychological Science published a study indicating that a certain type of meditation may help the brain hold on to images for short periods.
New Experiences – "The brain seems to really benefit from novelty and new experiences," said Grohol. But instead of paying money for so-called brain games that may or may not be effective, Grohol suggests people can just do crossword puzzles or play Sudoku games. Learning new languages and other similar pursuits are also good for the brain.