How aerobic exercise enhances neuroplasticity in the brain

New research published in the journal Experimental Brain Research suggests a single bout of moderate intensity aerobic exercise enhances neuroplasticity in the brain through its effects on the neurotransmitter GABA.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding authors, Winston D. Byblow and Ronan A. Mooney of the University of Auckland. Read their responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Habitual exercise appears to be beneficial for health and well-being. It is becoming increasingly evident that acute and chronic participation in aerobic exercise exerts a number of positive effects on the brain such as improved memory and executive function. The underlying mechanisms of exercise-related changes in brain function are not completely understood.

What should the average person take away from your study?

A brief but intense period of aerobic exercise immediately reduces GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA play an important role in regulating the brain’s capacity to undergo change or neuroplasticity. We observed reduced excitability of GABA-mediated networks in the motor cortex, which may explain findings from previous studies where enhanced neuroplasticity is observed after aerobic exercise.

Our findings may have implications for individuals after stroke, where GABA is a promising target for promoting neuroplasticity to promote recovery of motor function.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

A key limitation of our study was the small sample size of young healthy people. Future studies might examine similar mechanisms in older adults and in people after stroke. We used a stationary bicycle to permit moderate exercise intensity, tailored to the aerobic fitness levels of each participant. Further studies should explore the influence of other exercise modalities and intensities as this would help determine the boundaries for producing the effects which may enhance neuroplasticity. Admittedly, older or clinical populations may struggle with certain exercise intensities/modalities due to functional limitations.

In addition to Byblow and Mooney, the study “Acute aerobic exercise modulates primary motor cortex inhibition” was also co-authored by James P. Coxon, John Cirillo, Helen Glenny and Nicholas Gant.