Whose Brain Is It?
by Leena Prasad
“Eli, what are you on man?” John says.
“What do you mean?” Eli says, “You know I don’t do drugs.”
“Cigarettes are a drug.”
“I’ve cut back on those.”
Eli and his friend John are playing a video-game.
After Eli wins the game, they go out for dinner.
“That’s the first time I’ve won in a few weeks,” Eli says as they walk towards their favorite pizzeria. “You are losing your edge, man.”
“You have been playing better than usual.” John says.
After dinner, Eli turns down John’s offer for a ride and walks the ten blocks that it takes to get home. It’s 11:30pm when he gets home but he’s feeling energized. He buys online tickets to see a local band, pays off a few bills, and reads until he falls asleep after midnight.
Next morning, he is alert and energized despite lack of sufficient sleep. After work, he goes to a dinner meeting with an investment club. He has been reading and learning a lot lately about financial planning and has made some good investments. Maybe that’s why he’s been happier than usual lately, he thinks.
Eli’s moods have been relatively positive for the last few months. He has also been calmer at work. Instead of getting frustrated with a colleague whom he considers dim-witted, Eli has grown slightly more patient and understanding.
A few weeks later, he’s watching a tennis game on television with his sister. An ad for Prozac comes on.
“Are you taking that stuff these days, Eli?” his sister says.
“You know, Prozac or … whatever it was that you were taking a few years ago.”
“You seem more relaxed these days,” she says.
He nods but doesn’t really know what to tell her. He has already told her about the breakup with the girl he was seeing and that there’s no one new in the picture. Nothing much has changed at work or otherwise.
“How’s your tennis game going these days,” his brother-in-law asks.
“Oh, I found a good partner and I’ve been playing three times a week for several months now.”
The change in Eli’s attitude may partly be a result of the regular exercise that he’s doing.
“I like to say that exercise is like taking a little Prozac or a little Ritalin at just the right moment,” says John J. Ratey, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “It affects mood, vitality, alertness, and feelings of well-being.” Ratey’s claim is supported by an experiment led by Yale scientist, Ronald Duman. The study discovered that exercise caused activation in the brain resulting in effects similar to those achieved by anti-depressants. Since Eli has had depression tendencies in the past where he benefitted from Prozac, his new exercise routine might be having a similar anti-depressant effect on him.
Dr. Duman’s study determined that exercise specifically activates a gene called VGF (not an acronym but the actual name of the gene). This gene releases chemicals that support the development of new nerve cells. Ratey refers to this effect as “Miracle Gro” for the brain. This does not mean that exercising will make a person any more intelligent. But it does improve the brain networks’ capacity for learning. This theory has been put to application at Naperville Central high School near Chicago which has instituted a pre-class exercise routine and teachers claim that exam results are showing a significant improvement.
Another study at Columbia University Medical Center, led by Dr. Scott A. Small, has shown a possible link between exercise and memory. In Dr. Small’s experiment, the mice grew new brain cell in the dentate gyrus, after consistent exercise. This is an area that is implicated in the memory loss associated with age. More research will be required to make a direct correlation between exercise and memory, however.
It’s not possible to measure the changes in Eli’s brain without scientific tools. More information about his recent intellectual prowess would be required to make even an informal correlation between his tennis games and increase in intellectual effectiveness.
Vigorous exercise is speculated to increase the production of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone that activates the brain’s reward center. Dopamine can also help control addictive behavior like smoking. “Dopamine works by replacing or satisfying the need for nicotine,” Ratey says. A study at University of Exeter in England, led by PhD student Kate Janse Van Rensburg, found that physical exertion reduced the desire for a cigarette. It’s difficult to make a direct correlation between Eli’s new exercise routine and his reduction in cigarette smoking but evidence suggests that this might be possible.
Another well-known result of exercise is a reduction in stress level. This is obvious in Eli’s case as witnessed by his friends and family. Stress is caused by accumulation of Adrenalin and other hormones in the bloodstream. Initially, these chemicals help power the body to deal with the stressful situation. An excess accumulation of these hormones is toxic. Exercise increases the blood flow to the brain which helps the brain to purge these toxic by-products of stress. “It builds up armies of antioxidants such as Vitamins E and C,” Ratey says about exercise. “These help brain cells protect us from future stress.”
Given all the quantifiable benefits, it is not surprising that exercise is being considered in dealing with a range of brain disorders. Dr. Ratey recommends exercise for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In addition to dopamine, Ratey says that exercise elevates the level of norepinephrine in the brain, a chemical that affects the frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for rational behavior. “It’s the part of the brain that puts the brakes on when the ref makes a terrible decision and you want to beat him up,” says Ratey. “It also helps to still the impulsivity and still the cravings for immediate gratification as it works to wake up the executive function of the frontal cortex, which in turn allows for delay, better choices, a bit more time to evaluate consequences,” says Ratey.
“You want to ready your brain for learning,” Ratey says. “For that to happen, all the chemicals must ‘jog’ into place.” It’s good to know that we can have some control over our brain functions. For those of us who do not have a regular exercise habit, however, this is yet another motivational factor to get out there and do something for our mind by doing something for our body. Perhaps, it can lead to the same changes in mood and quality of results that Eli is experiencing.
Dr. Nicola Wolfe is the neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.