Research suggests one person’s exercise pain is another's gain

Zurine De Miguel

Zurine De Miguel in her behavioral neuroscience lab | Photo by Andrew K. Evans

December 15, 2021

Exercise is one of the most powerful interventions to promote healthy aging. What if people could receive the benefits of exercise on the brain without exercising? According to a new article published in Nature by Zurine De Miguel, an assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience in the Psychology Department, benefits of exercise on the brain can be transmitted by transferring blood from exercised mice to sedentary mice.

“We showed that we can transfer some of the benefits of physical activity on the brain by simply transferring blood derived plasma, containing proteins induced by physical exercise,” indicates De Miguel.

They took blood plasma from mice that exercised and injected it into mice that did not exercise. They found that for the sedentary mice the plasma improved learning and memory, increased the number neural progenitor cells, and offered protection in a model of Alzheimer’s disease and acute neuroinflammation. 

It might be tempting to leap to the conclusion that this portends a pill that makes exercise obsolete. But a more realistic application might be to confer the benefits of exercise on the brain to people who are not able to exercise. 

Also, one of the biggest challenges in treating brain diseases is to design a drug that can get to the brain, said De Miguel, because of the blood brain barrier that keeps toxins and pathogens away from the central nervous system. So drugs have a hard time accessing the brain too.

“For many years now, we have acknowledged that the brain controls the peripheral system — for instance, heart rate is controlled by the brain,” De Miguel said. “But we have started to realize that the peripheral system — organs, tissues, cells and glands — can also change how the brain works.”

Their study shows that the body has natural pathways to affect the brain and its function, offering a strategy for treating brain diseases like dementia. 

“To begin to validate some of these findings in humans, we measure plasma proteins in Veterans suffering from mild cognitive impairment before and after a 6 months intervention of physical exercise,” she said. “We observed that our participants showed increases in the relevant exercise induced proteins, similar to our findings in mice.”

De Miguel is interested in further exploring the relevance of these findings in humans with local collaborations at CSUMB and has started collaborating with Professor Jennifer Dyer-Seymour of the Psychology Department and the Transportation Agency for Monterey County to assess if walking or biking to school has similar cognitive benefits for kids. 

This ties in to her efforts at building a molecular and behavioral neuroscience laboratory to engage students in research. One related project is studying the role of hypoxia on the brain, which might be relevant to exercise, using a new neuroscience model in a local fish in Monterey Bay in collaboration with Professor Cheryl Logan from the Marine Science Department and Professor Scott Hamilton from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.