Six minutes of high-intensity exercise could extend the lifespan of a healthy brain, possibly delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, a new small study has found.
The researchers found that short but intense cycles increased the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is essential for brain formation, learning and memory. It is thought that BDNF may protect the brain from age-related mental decline.
“BDNF has shown great promise in animal models, but pharmaceutical interventions have so far failed to safely harness the protective power of BDNF in humans,” said the lead author of the study, Travis Gibbons, from the University of Otago in New Zealand.
“We saw the need to explore non-pharmacological approaches that can preserve brain capacity that humans can use to naturally increase BDNF to aid in healthy aging,” Gibbons said.
The report was published Jan. 11 in the Journal of Physiology.
BDNF promotes the brain’s ability to form new connections and pathways, and also helps neurons survive. Animal studies have shown that increasing the availability of BDNF boosts cognitive performance, such as thinking, reasoning, or memorization.
For this study, the researchers wanted to examine the influence of fasting and exercise on the production of BDNF in humans.
Working with a dozen men and women, the investigators compared fasting, low-intensity cycling for 90 minutes, high-intensity cycling for six minutes, and a combination of fasting and exercise.
Brief but vigorous exercise was the most effective way to increase BDNF compared to a day of fasting with or without long, low-intensity exercise, the researchers said.
BDNF increased four to five times more than fasting, which showed no change in BDNF, or prolonged activity, which showed a slight increase in BDNF.
Further work is needed to better understand these results, the study authors noted.
Researchers hypothesize that the brain switches its preferred fuel source to another to meet the body’s energy needs. This could mean metabolizing lactate instead of glucose during exercise, which could potentially initiate pathways leading to more BDNF in the blood.
The increase in BDNF could be due to an increased number of blood platelets, which store large amounts of BDNF. This is more strongly influenced by exercise than by fasting, they explained.
Ongoing research will further investigate the effects of calorie restriction and exercise.
“We are now investigating how fasting for longer durations, such as up to three days, influences BDNF,” Gibbons said in a press release. “We are curious whether intensive exercise at the start of a fast accelerates the beneficial effects of fasting. Fasting and exercise are rarely studied together. We believe that fasting and exercise can be used together to optimize BDNF production in the human brain.”