The growing trend of health and wellness in the United States has inspired a surge of research in the prevention and treatment of disease with natural remedies. One area of interest is the effect of healthy exercise on brain health. The human brain is an amazing, perpetually adapting, thinking organ. Even in old age, the brain can produce new cells. Most age-related memory loss and motor skill problems result from inactivity in the brain rather than disease.

A study conducted in the late 1990s at the Salk Institute’s Laboratory of Genetics by Dr. Fred Gage showed that healthy exercise increases neurogenesis (or the production of new brain cells) in the brains of humans and animals. It was found that when mice and rats were allowed to run on wheels, their brains were flooded with newborn neurons. The results of mazes and other similar tests showed that neurogenesis improved thinking and problem-solving skills in the mice and rats, clearly improving brain health.

Researchers have not yet determined exactly why exercise stimulates the growth of brain cells but suggest it may be due to an increased flow of blood to the brain or because healthy exercise enhances the levels of specific hormones in the body.

Recent studies conducted at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago studied mice whose bone-morphogenetic protein or BMP levels had been manipulated in their brains. BMP affects the development of cells in various ways throughout the body, some of which are harmful. The higher the BMP levels in the brain, the more inactive the stem cells become and the less neurogenesis occurs which is harmful to brain health.

Exercise seems to thwart the effects of BMP according to Dr. Jack Kessler, the chairman of neurology at Northwestern University. Mice given access to running wheels experienced a 50 percent improvement from the deleterious effects of BMP within one week. They also experienced a significant increase in Noggin, a brain protein which is a BMP antagonist. Essentially more Noggin present in the brain produces more new brain cells. The mice in the Northwestern study whose brains were directly injected with large doses of Noggin became “little mouse geniuses, if there is such a thing,” according to Dr. Kessler.

It is not clear whether healthy exercise increases Noggin production in the brain or lowers BMP activity, but since either result is positive, it doesn’t really matter. The bottom line is that exercise enhances brain health by encouraging neurogenesis. The specific intensity level or duration of exercise has yet to be determined, but according to Dr. Gage from the Salk Institute, even a short period of exercise is found to be beneficial.