Human learning and memory rely on the ability of our brain's neurons to change with experience, a process called "brain plasticity." For the first time ever, scientists from the University of Pisa in Italy have demonstrated that exercise might enhance plasticity in the adult brain, as outlined in their study. In particular, the research focused on the visual cortex, showing plenty of potential for the recovery of people with amblyopia and traumatic brain injury.
"We provide the first demonstration that moderate levels of physical activity enhance neuroplasticity in the visual cortex of adult humans," Claudia Lunghi, co-author of the study, said in a press release. "By showing that moderate levels of physical activity can boost the plastic potential of the adult visual cortex, our results pave the way to the development of non-invasive therapeutic strategies exploiting the intrinsic brain plasticity in adult subjects."
The human brain's plasticity is the highest early in life, decreasing as we age, and it is molded by development and experience. This decline is most pronounced in the sensory areas of the brain, with a great difference seen when comparing plasticity levels of young people and adults.
Lunghi and her colleagues put 20 adults through two deprivation tests; visual deprivation creates an imbalance between the eyes which can be used to measure visual plasticity. In one test, subjects with one eye watched a movie while sitting in a chair. In the other, subjects watched the movie eye-patched while exercising on a stationary bike for 10-minute intervals. The results showed that brain plasticity was enhanced in the group that exercised while watching the movie.
"We found that if, during the two hours of eye patching, the subject intermittently cycles, the perceptual effect of eye patching on binocular rivalry is stronger compared to a condition in which, during the two hours of patching, the subject watches a movie while sitting on a chair," said Lunghi. "That is, after physical activity, the eye that was patched is strongly potentiated, indicating increased levels of brain plasticity."