Thu. Jun 20th, 2024

Exercise’s Dopamine-Driven Cognitive Boost – Neuroscience News

Summary: Recent research has revealed a significant link between exercise and improved cognitive performance, attributing this enhancement to increased dopamine levels. This discovery, involving sophisticated PET scans to monitor dopamine release in the brain during exercise, indicates that dopamine plays a vital role in boosting reaction times and overall brain function.

The study’s implications are far-reaching, suggesting potential therapeutic applications for conditions influenced by dopamine, like Parkinson’s disease and ADHD. The research underscores the importance of voluntary exercise for cognitive health, differentiating it from involuntary muscle stimulation.

Key Facts:

  1. The study used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to track dopamine release in the brain during exercise, linking it to improved cognitive performance.
  2. Findings suggest that voluntary exercise, not just forced muscle movement, is essential for this dopamine-related enhancement of brain function.
  3. The research has potential therapeutic implications for various dopamine-influenced conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and ADHD.

Source: University of Portsmouth

A study exploring the mechanisms behind why cognitive performance improves in response to exercise, has found that dopamine plays a key role.

The neurotransmitter and hormone – which is tied to pleasure, satisfaction and motivation – is known to increase when you work out. New findings suggest it is also linked to faster reaction time during exercise.

The researchers behind the discovery say it could lead to a new therapeutic pathway for cognitive health, because of dopamine’s significant role in several conditions including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, ADHD, addiction, and depression.

This shows a woman exercising.
The results revealed that when a participant cycled lying down in the machine, their brain increased the amount of dopamine release, and that this process was linked with improved reaction time. Credit: Neuroscience News

They measured the release of dopamine in the brain using a sophisticated scanning device, known as a positron emission tomography (PET). It tracks the metabolic and biochemical activity of the cells in the body.

The results revealed that when a participant cycled lying down in the machine, their brain increased the amount of dopamine release, and that this process was linked with improved reaction time. 

Dr Joe Costello, from the University’s School of Sport, Health & Exercise Science (SHES), said: “We know cardiovascular exercise improves cognitive performance, but the exact mechanisms behind this process have not been rigorously investigated in humans until now.

“Using novel brain imaging techniques, we were able to examine the role dopamine plays in boosting brain function during exercise, and the results are really promising. Our current study suggests the hormone is an important neuromodulator for improved reaction time.

“These findings support growing evidence that exercise prescription is a viable therapy for a host of health conditions across the lifespan.”

As part of the study, three experiments were carried out with 52 male participants overall. In the first, individuals were asked to carry out cognitive tasks at rest and while cycling in the PET scanner, so the team could monitor the movement of dopamine in their brain. 

The second used electrical muscle stimulation to test whether forced muscle movement to stimulate exercise would also improve cognitive performance. The final experiment combined both voluntary and involuntary exercise.

In the experiments where voluntary exercise was carried out, cognitive performance improved. This was not the case when only forced electrical stimulation was used.

Soichi Ando, Associate Professor in the Health & Sports Science Laboratory at the University of Electro-Communications in Japan, said: “We wanted to remove voluntary muscle movement for part of the study, to see if the process in which acute exercise improves cognitive performance is present during manufactured exercise. But our results indicate that the exercise has to be from the central signals of the brain, and not just the muscle itself.

“This suggests that when we tell our central command to move our body during a workout, that’s the process which helps the dopamine release in the brain.”

The team’s previous study examined the relationship between oxygen levels, cognitive performance and exercise, to test the theory that the more oxygen we breathe during a workout, the more awake our brain is. They found no change to an individual’s reaction time when cycling both inside and outside of an environment with low levels of oxygen (hypoxia). 

“These latest findings support our previous theory that cognitive performance during exercise is affected by changes to brain regulating hormones, including dopamine”, added Dr Costello.

“There could also be a number of other psychophysiological factors including cerebral blood flow, arousal and motivation that play a part.”

The paper, published in The Journal of Physiology, says further studies are urgently needed to fully understand how dopamine release is linked to cognitive performance following exercise. 

The authors also recognise limitations to the sample size being relatively small, and recommend more participants are needed in future experiments, from a range of populations including women and older individuals, over a longer period of time. 

The study was a collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and University of Chichester in England; the University of Electro-Communications, Tohoku University, Meiji Yasuda Life Foundation of Health and Welfare, and Setsunan University in Japan; University Sultan Zainal Abidin in Malaysia; and Da-Yeh University in Taiwan.

About this exercise, dopamine, and cognition research news

Author: Robyn Montague
Source: University of Portsmouth
Contact: Robyn Montague – University of Portsmouth
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
The neuromodulatory role of dopamine in improved reaction time by acute cardiovascular exercise” by Joe Costello et al. Journal of Physiology


The neuromodulatory role of dopamine in improved reaction time by acute cardiovascular exercise

Acute cardiovascular physical exercise improves cognitive performance, as evidenced by a reduction in reaction time (RT). However, the mechanistic understanding of how this occurs is elusive and has not been rigorously investigated in humans.

Here, using positron emission tomography (PET) with [11C]raclopride, in a multi-experiment study we investigated whether acute exercise releases endogenous dopamine (DA) in the brain.

We hypothesized that acute exercise augments the brain DA system, and that RT improvement is correlated with this endogenous DA release. The PET study (Experiment 1: n = 16) demonstrated that acute physical exercise released endogenous DA, and that endogenous DA release was correlated with improvements in RT of the Go/No-Go task.

Thereafter, using two electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) studies (Experiments 2 and 3: n = 18 and 22 respectively), we investigated what triggers RT improvement. The EMS studies indicated that EMS with moderate arm cranking improved RT, but RT was not improved following EMS alone or EMS combined with no load arm cranking.

The novel mechanistic findings from these experiments are: (1) endogenous DA appears to be an important neuromodulator for RT improvement and (2) RT is only altered when exercise is associated with central signals from higher brain centres.

Our findings explain how humans rapidly alter their behaviour using neuromodulatory systems and have significant implications for promotion of cognitive health.

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