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Exercise protects aged synapses

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Increased nerve transmission observed in active elderly persons

A UC San Francisco study found that active seniors’ brains had more proteins that help preserve healthy neuron connections and cognition.

That was true even in persons whose brains had harmful proteins linked to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative illnesses.

“Our work is the first that uses human data to show that synaptic protein regulation is related to physical activity and may drive the beneficial cognitive outcomes we see,” says Kaitlin Casaletto, lead author of the study.

However, the benefits of exercise on cognition have only been demonstrated in mice.

Casaletto, a neuropsychologist at the Weill Institute for Neurosciences, collaborated with William Honer, MD, a psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia and the study’s senior author, to use data from Rush University’s Memory and Aging Project. This study followed the physical activity of older individuals in their latter years, who also volunteered to donate their brains when they died.

“Maintaining the integrity of these connections between neurons may be vital to fending off dementia, since the synapse is really the site where cognition happens,” Casaletto adds.

“Physical activity—a readily available tool—may help boost this synaptic functioning.”

More Proteins Mean Better Nerve Signals 

Honer and Casaletto discovered that active old adults have higher quantities of proteins that help neurons communicate.

Honer’s earlier findings showing people with more of these proteins in their brains when they died were better able to maintain their cognition later in life corroborated this conclusion.

The researchers were surprised to discover that the effects reached beyond the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, to other brain regions involved in cognitive function, according to Honer.

“It may be that physical activity exerts a global sustaining effect, supporting and stimulating healthy function of proteins that facilitate synaptic transmission throughout the brain,” Honer said.

Synapses Safeguard Brains Showing Signs of Dementia

The harmful proteins amyloid and tau, which are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease pathogenesis, accumulate in the brains of most elderly people. Many experts believe that amyloid builds up first, followed by tau, causing synapses and neurons to break down.

Casaletto previously discovered that synaptic integrity appeared to decrease the link between amyloid and tau, as well as tau and neurodegeneration, when evaluated in the spinal fluid of living people or the brain tissue of autopsied adults.

“In older adults with higher levels of the proteins associated with synaptic integrity, this cascade of neurotoxicity that leads to Alzheimer’s disease appears to be attenuated,” she adds. “Taken together, these two studies show the potential importance of maintaining synaptic health to support the brain against Alzheimer’s disease.”

Image Credit: Getty

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