When it comes to increasing brain power, it may be that hitting the books and hitting the gym aren’t mutually exclusive.
The same molecule that lifts your mood when you exercise also promotes the growth of new neurons in one of your brain’s learning and memory centers, a new study out of Germany finds.
Serotonin, the so-called “happiness molecule” that your brain releases at a higher frequency when you exercise, regulates the growth of neurons in the section of the brain known as the hippocampus, according to the paper, which was published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Exercise had already been shown to stimulate the transformation of stem cells into neurons in the hippocampus, a region known to produce new cells throughout life. The researchers suspected that serotonin might trigger that process, so they compared normal mice with those genetically engineered not to produce the hormone.
The team was surprised to find that neural generation continued normally in both rodent groups when they were at rest—i.e. serotonin isn’t required to grow new cells under normal circumstances. But when the mice ran on their wheels, the normal serotonin-producing group grew neurons at an elevated rate. The serotonin-deficient group didn’t.
This discovery may prove to be a crucial link between the study of depression and the rate of neural growth. It could be that staying active is fundamental to the way the brain stays healthy.