Study explores the benefits of sport in memory and motor learning

If sport is good for the body, it also seems to be good for the brain.


Sports offer a lot of fun and excitement, but are there any brain health benefits that come with playing sports?

One study found that playing sports can improve brain function. It also showed that just being a sports fan may have a positive impact on your brain. Playing or watching sports can affect the neural networks that support language comprehension.

A new study by the University of Geneva (UNIGE) suggests that an intensive physical exercise session as short as 15 minutes improves memory, including acquiring new motor skills. 

This happens due to endocanabinoids, molecules known to increase synaptic plasticity. The body produces endocannabinoids during physical exertion.

Kinga Igloi, lecturer in the laboratory of Professor Sophie Schwartz, at UNIGE Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Basic Neurosciences, said, “They circulate in the blood and easily cross the blood-brain barrier. They then bind to specialize cellular receptors and trigger this feeling of euphoria. These same molecules bind to receptors in the hippocampus, the main brain structure for memory processing.”

“But what is the link between sport and memory? This is what we wanted to understand.”

To test the effect of sport on motor learning, scientists asked a group of 15 young and healthy men, who were not athletes, to take a memory test under three conditions of physical exercise: after 30 minutes of moderate cycling, after 15 minutes of intensive cycling (defined as 80% of their maximum heart rate), or after a period of rest.

Blanca Marin Bosch, a researcher in the same laboratory, said, “The exercise was as follows: a screen showed four points placed next to each other. Each time one of the dots briefly changed into a star, the participant had to press the corresponding button as quickly as possible. It followed a predefined and repeated sequence to precisely evaluate how movements were learned. This is very similar to what we do when; for example, we learn to type on a keyboard as quickly as possible. After an intensive sports session, the performance was much better.”

The scientists also observed changes in the activation of brain structures with functional MRI. They performed blood tests to measure endocannabinoid levels. The different analyses concur: the faster individuals are, the more they activate their hippocampus (the brain area of memory) and the caudate nucleus (a brain structure involved in motor processes). Moreover, their endocannabinoid levels follow the same curve: the higher the level after intense physical effort, the more the brain is activated and the better the brain’s performance.

Blanca Marin Bosch said, “These molecules are involved in synaptic plasticity, i.e., how neurons are connected, and thus may act on long-term potentiation, the mechanism for optimal consolidation of memory.”

A past study has demonstrated the positive effect of sport on another type of memory, associative memory. But, contrary to what is shown here, they had observed that a sport session of moderate-intensity, not high intensity, produced better results. 

It suggests not all forms of memory use the same brain mechanisms, not all sports intensities have the same effects. It should be noted that in all cases, physical exercise improves memory more than inaction. 

Kinga Igloi wonders“By providing precise neuroscientific data, these studies make it possible to envisage new strategies for improving or preserving memory. Sports activity can be easy to implement, minimally invasive, and inexpensive intervention. Would it be useful, for example, to plan a moment of sport at the end of a school morning to consolidate school learning.”

Neuroscientists are currently pursuing their work by studying memory disorders, and in particular, by studying populations at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. “Some people as young as 25 years of age may experience subtle memory deficits characterized by overactivation of the hippocampus. We want to evaluate the extent to which sports practice could help compensate for these early deficits that are precursors to Alzheimer’s disease.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Marin Bosch, B., Bringard, A., Logrieco, M.G. et al. Effect of acute physical exercise on motor sequence memory. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-72108-1

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