Protein Produced During Exercise May Prevent Alzheimer's

  • Researchers from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School have reported that they have isolated a protein called irisin that is produced in the brain during endurance exercise. The scientists introduced the protein to sedentary mice who were then tested for changes in how their brains functioned. What they found is that the protein activated the genes that promote brain health and encourage the growth of new nerves involved in learning and memory.

    Bruce Spiegelman, Ph.D. of Dana-Farber and HMS said of the experiment, “What is exciting is that a natural substance can be introduced into the bloodstream that can mimic some of the effects of endurance exercise on the brain.”  Spiegelman is co-senior author of the publication with Michael E. Greenberg, PhD, chair of neurobiology at HMS.

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    Scientists have long accepted that endurance exercise can often improve cognitive function, especially in older people. While there is significant work ahead to develop a stable form of irisin that could be developed into a drug and then tested on humans, these scientists feel that their discovery sheds light on why endurance exercise monitored in studies shows cognitive benefits. The findings were reported in the journal Cell Metabolism.

    Endurance exercise, even if it’s simply brisk walking, is necessary for overall good health. For most people, it would follow that they have a good chance of increasing their own irisin simply by exercising more often, thus enhancing their cognitive condition as well as their physical being.

    Tai chi also increases cognitive function

    In 2012, The Atlantic reported on a study involving a group of seniors residing in Shanghai, China and the practice of the ancient art of tai chi as a way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.


    Tai chi, as described by the Mayo Clinic website, is “… a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical exercise and stretching. To do tai chi, you perform a series of postures or movements in a slow, graceful manner. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion.”


    According to the Atlantic article, the scientists compared the cognitive health of tai chi practitioners to that of members of a group who received no intervention by administering MRIs as well as neuropsychological measures for dementia, learning capacity, and verbal fluency throughout the study period.


    The control group comprised of participants who did not practice tai chi showed brain shrinkage that was consistent with what scientists have observed among most people in their 60s and 70s. The participants who practiced tai chi three times per week showed measurable increases in brain volume. Their thinking processes and memory test scores improved, as well.


    The takeaway from both of these studies seems to be that we need to use our bodies to save our minds. Aerobic exercise is good for our heart, lungs and brain. Slow, controlled exercise keeps us flexible and helps our balance as well as increasing muscle strength and blood flow. If the study around tai chi is correct, this type of exercise can also help stop brain shrinkage that is now considered normal for an aging adult.


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    Unless there’s a medical reason that prohibits endurance exercise and/or some type of balance and flexibility exercise, a significant payoff is waiting for those who pursue these activities. People don’t need to run marathons or become master yogis. They simple need to push their bodies in order to move forward toward a better life. These studies are about methods of using our body to preserve our mind. The information is there. It’s up to us to make the effort.


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    Alzheimer’s Weekly (2013, October 20) Retrieved from


    Villarica, H. (2012, June 21) Study: Tai Chi Increases Brain Size, Boosts Memory, May Delay Dementia. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Published On: October 26, 2013