Weight training appears to have promoted the creation of new neurons in the memory centres of the brain in animal studies, according to research from the University of Missouri published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. When rats carried weights they gained strength and changed their brain cellular environment which improved their ability to think, according to the researchers.

According to their findings, weight training reduced or reversed some aspects of age-related memory loss, which may have important implications for brain health in humans. The training was accomplished with rats using ladders and tiny weights that were taped onto them.

During middle age, the brain changes and thinking skills start to decline. Once familiar names, words, locations, why we entered a room, or where we placed an item, and facts all begin to elude many of us. Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to typically increase the amount of new neurons created in the brain’s memory centre, and to reduce inflammation which can contribute to the development of dementia and other neurodegenerative conditions. A few studies have linked weight training to building muscle and improved cognition, but it is not clear at the molecular level if it can affect cells and functions of the brain.

In the study, the rats received food rewards for reaching the top of the ladder, and soon started to climb even without rewards. After several weeks they showed increased muscle mass which indicated the activity was effective weight training.

But to investigate the effect of training on the brain, a separate group was injected with a substance known to induce inflammation. Half of these animals began weight training programs, and as climbing became easier the amount of weight was increased. After 5 weeks all of the animals, including a control group, were put into a brightly lit maze. Success at finding their way to a dark chamber differed: control animals were found to be the fastest and most accurate; those with mild cognitive impairments faltered, but with practise, the weight training animals caught up to and surpassed the controls. According to the researchers weight training had effectively restored their ability to think.

Microscopic examinations of brain tissue from each of the groups showed signs of inflammation in the brains of those animals that were injected.

Memory centres of the animals that had weight-trained were teeming with enzymes and genetic markers known to help kick start the creation and survival of new neurons while increasing plasticity; meaning that these weight-trained brains were in effect remaking themselves to resemble that of brains that had not been inflamed and impaired.

It is not known if these effects will translate to humans, so it is impossible to know from these results if human brains will respond in the same manner. Regardless, these are promising and suggestive results.

“I think it’s safe to say that people should look into doing some resistance training. It’s good for you for all kinds of other reasons, and it appears to be neuroprotective. And who doesn’t want a healthy brain?” says Taylor Kelty, Ph.D.

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