Researchers Find Missing Link to Why Exercise Makes You Smarter
Most of us now know that successful people exercise. It is such a status symbol that the workout routines of presidents like Bush and Obama and CEOs like Ariana Huffington and Jeff Bezos are frequently covered by the media. We know exercise is good for us, but one of the biggest draws for top performers is how it boosts our cognitive function. Exercise literally makes us smarter. But how exactly does this happen? Spoiler alert: it’s dopamine.
Scientists have been trying to find the exact mechanism behind the increased exercise of brain function gives us for some time. It appears that exercise stimulates growth factors in the brain, which means brain cells can grow and adapt, a process called neuroplasticity. And research also shows that exercise improves neural efficiency, so that our brain cells work faster and interact with each other better. But the actual biological link between exercise and these cognitive improvements has remained unknown. So far.
A research team from Japan to have found the missing link between exercise and better cognitive function. And they did it by studying the speed at which people blink.
The image of a group of scientists staring at you intently and counting the speed at which you blink can be unsettling, but using the frequency of eye blinks to determine the impact of exercise on the brain is a brilliant idea. . Here’s why: The team drew recent findings in neuroscience that suggest spontaneous eye blink rate (sEBR) reflects dopamine activity in the brain.
The researchers also knew that the dopaminergic system in the brain is linked to both physical exercise and executive function in the brain – that is, high-level thinking. Neuroscientists have wondered if dopamine could be the chemical messenger that leads to the brain stimulation we get through exercise. But until the Japanese team made the connection with the blinking of the eyes, there was no marker of dopaminergic activity that could test it.
Blinking is a marker for dopamine
“We used sEBR as a non-invasive measure of dopaminergic system function to test whether it could be the missing link between aerobic capacity and cognitive function,” said study lead author Ryuta Kuwamizu in a report. Press release. Non-invasive means scientists don’t need to stick their study participants with needles, so it’s a win for everyone.
First, the researchers measured the resting eye blink rate of 35 healthy men aged 18 to 24. Then the study team made them exercise until they were exhausted. Finally, study participants performed a Color Word Stroop test, which not only has a super fun name, but also measures executive function.
Throughout this time, the team continued to monitor their sEBR. And in the Stroop test in particular, they used near infrared spectroscopy to monitor cortical activation in the left dorsolateral PFC (l-DLPFC). In other words, they used a brain scan to see how the brain was functioning so they could correlate that performance with the rate of eye blinking.
The higher the sEBR, the higher the neural efficiency of l-DLPFC. So the executive function was high, the faster someone blinked. But sEBR was also correlated with the fitness of the participants.
“As expected, we found significant correlations between aerobic capacity, cognitive function and sEBR,” explained lead author Professor Hideaki Soya. “When we examined these relationships in more detail, we found that the link between improved aerobic fitness and improved cognitive function was in part mediated by dopaminergic regulation.
This was the first study to identify the neurotransmitter responsible for the increased brain function we get through exercise. “Our data indicate that dopamine has a critical role in the link between aerobic capacity and cognition,” said Kuwamizu. Additionally, the study’s authors speculate that a lack of fitness could lead to dopamine dysfunction, which could mean less efficient thinking and a bad mood.
So if it’s dopamine, wouldn’t it be easier to just take something that increases dopamine instead of going to the gym? Unfortunately this has been tried and it has not worked very well for people. Since dopamine is also the key neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward system, that’s why crystal meth and other drug abuse drugs are so addicting – they give you a dopamine boost.
So it seems that real exercise is the way to go when we want to increase our dopamine to boost our mood and thinking. Or, we could stimulate our brain’s dopamine reward center by repeating the phrase “stroop test” five times quickly. Try it: it’s delicious.