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Research links exercise to sharper ageing brains

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As we grow older, our brains often don’t work quite as sharply as they used to. Fortunately, researchers have uncovered exciting evidence that a simple lifestyle habit could help keep our minds youthful and sharp – exercise.

A team from the University of Queensland made a fascinating discovery when studying the brains of ageing mice. They found that regular exercise essentially reversed the ageing process in key brain cells called microglia.

“We found that ageing significantly alters the gene expression of all cell types in the brain but had greatest impact on the microglia, which are immune cells of the central nervous system that support brain function,” explains Associate Professor Jana Vukovic.

“Our research showed that exercise, in the form of a running wheel for the mice, reverted the gene profile of aged microglia to patterns seen in younger versions of the microglial cells.”

The effects of exercise seemed to target microglia specifically. Other brain cells still showed typical signs of ageing despite the running regimen. But for microglia, it was like flipping a switch to turn back the clock.

The researchers also noticed levels of T cells (a type of white blood) were elevated in the aged mouse brains, particularly in the memory/learning centre or hippocampus. However, exercise prevented this increase of T cells, reducing the effect associated with brain ageing.

Dr Vukovic said the research is a step towards understanding why humans feel mentally better and are able to think more clearly with regular exercise. “Our findings in mice provide a platform for research into the human brain and ageing,” she said

While more research is still needed to understand the links between exercise, ageing and human cognition, this study provides promising insights. Simple physical activity could be a powerful tool to combat age-related mental decline.

“Further research could eventually develop therapeutic ways to target specific cell types to combat ageing of the brain,” states Dr Vukovic. “These findings support the importance of exercise, particularly for the elderly.”

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