Could the “Feel Good” hormone explain exercise’s brain benefits?

Dopamine's role: Improved reaction time with cardio exercise.

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A study from University of Portsmouth on exercise and cognitive performance found that dopamine, a neurotransmitter tied to pleasure and motivation, increases during exercise. Using a PET scan, researchers discovered that when participants cycled lying down, their brains released more dopamine, improving reaction time. This finding suggests a potential therapeutic pathway for conditions like Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, ADHD, addiction, and depression, where dopamine plays a crucial role.

Dr Joe Costello, from the University’s School of Sport, Health & Exercise Science (SHES), said: “We know cardiovascular exercise improves cognitive performance, but the exact mechanisms behind this process have not been rigorously investigated in humans until now. Using novel brain imaging techniques, we examined dopamine’s role in boosting brain function during exercise, and the results are auspicious. Our current study suggests that the hormone is an important neuromodulator for improved reaction time. These findings support growing evidence that exercise prescription is a viable therapy for various health conditions across the lifespan.”

In a study with 52 male participants, three experiments were conducted. The first monitored dopamine movement in the brain during cognitive tasks at rest and while cycling. They used electrical muscle stimulation for the second and the third combined voluntary and involuntary exercise. 

Cognitive performance improved only in the voluntary exercise experiments, not forced electrical stimulation alone. The results suggest that the brain’s central signals, not just muscle movement, play a vital role in the cognitive benefits of exercise.

According to a study, When we consciously move our body during a workout, it triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. The team’s previous research focused on oxygen levels and cognitive performance during exercise, suggesting that changes in brain-regulating hormones, especially dopamine, influence mental benefits. Factors like cerebral blood flow, arousal, and motivation may also contribute.

The study, published in The Journal of Physiology, calls for more research to understand how dopamine affects cognitive performance after exercise. Recognizing the limitation of a small sample size, the authors recommend more extensive and diverse participant groups, including women and older individuals, for longer-term studies. 

This study contributes valuable insights into the relationship between exercise, dopamine release, and cognitive performance. The findings underscore the importance of voluntary movement and the central signals from the brain in achieving mental benefits. As further studies are recommended to deepen our understanding, this research paves the way for potential therapeutic interventions in conditions affecting cognitive health.

Journal reference:

  1. Soichi Ando, Toshihiko Fujimoto, et al., The neuromodulatory role of dopamine in improved reaction time by acute cardiovascular exercise. The Journal of Physiology. DOI: 10.1113/JP285173.