Brain benefits of exercise may come in a pill following protein discovery

A new study detailing a poorly understood protein may pave the way for a future in which people can get the brain-protecting benefits of exercise in the form of a pill. The findings would be particularly beneficial to individuals who aren't able to exercise due to physical disabilities or during extended periods of illness, helping protect one's brain as it ages.

A large body of research has linked various forms of exercise with different and expansive health-promoting effects, including reducing one's risk of developing a large number of diseases like cancer and dementia, as well as chronic conditions like high blood sugar and hypertension. When it comes to exercise's impact on brain health, a poorly understood liver protein has been found to play an important role.

The new study comes from researchers at the University of California – San Francisco, where the team explains that a liver protein called Gpld1 hasn't been studied much, but that it may play an important role in protecting brain health as humans age. This protein was found in elevated concentrations in blood from mice after exercise, as well as elderly humans who are regularly active.

The good news is that the study found the same benefits from stimulating the liver to produce this protein without using exercise, indicating that a drug capable of causing this stimulation could potentially offer the same brain health benefits for disabled and elderly individuals who can no longer exercise.

Among other things, the researchers found that blood taken from young mice that exercised regularly and giving it to old, sedentary mice caused a notable boost in memory and learning after only four weeks. This may have been due to the increased production of hippocampal neurons. The study's senior author Saul Villeda, Ph.D., explained:

To be honest, I didn't expect to succeed in finding a single molecule that could account for so much of the benefits of exercise on the brain ... When I saw these data, I was completely floored. Through this protein, the liver is responding to physical activity and telling the old brain to get young. This is a remarkable example of liver-to-brain communication that, to the best of our knowledge, no one knew existed.