Running Boosts Brainpower

Going for a Jog Builds Brain Cells, Study Finds

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 19, 2010

Jan. 19, 2010 -- Running may do more than improve your cardiovascular fitness and overall physique. It might actually make you smarter.

Scientists reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences say that running has a profound impact on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Adult mice that voluntarily used running wheels increased their number of brain cells and performed better at spatial learning tests than non-exercising mice, they discovered.

Spatial learning refers to the ability to navigate through or discriminate between the unfamiliar -- such as telling the difference between two patterns, or finding your way around a new city. Spatial memory refers to how you remember the location or layout of the objects in the space around you. You record spatial memories after processing key sensory information, such as what you see and hear. Animals use spatial memory to remember where their food bowl is located. Mice, for example, learn this by scrambling through a maze to find the food at the end.

In the latest spatial learning experiment, researchers learned that the running mice were better able to tell the difference between the locations of two adjacent identical stimuli. This ability was closely linked to an increase in new brain cell growth in the hippocampus. Ongoing mice experiments have repeatedly shown that running boosts the number of new brain cells in this area. Until the late 1990s, neuroscientists believed that we did not grow new brain cells after birth.

Today, mounting evidence continues to reveal that exercise triggers significant physiological and structural changes in the brain that are beneficial to cognitive function.