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Scientists Identify the Protein Responsible for the Brain Benefits of Exercise

The study could prove beneficial to those who have limitations that don’t allow them to exercise.

July 12, 2020

Scientists Identify the Protein Responsible for the Brain Benefits of Exercise

Exercise is not only great for the body, but it is also great for the mind. It has been found to protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline and has been shown to improve cognition in individuals at risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia.


But what about those with physical limitations that hinder them from exercising? What if there was a way of getting the benefits of exercise without actually partaking in the activity?

Researchers from the UC San Francisco Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research have now identified the exact protein responsible for the many benefits of exercise in mice.

The new research showed that after exercise, mice’s livers secrete a protein called Gpld1 into the blood. Levels of this protein in the blood correspond to improved cognitive function in aged mice.

In addition, the enzyme was also elevated in the blood of elderly humans who exercise regularly. The researchers then discovered that simply increasing the amount of Gpld1 produced by the mouse liver could manifest many benefits as regular exercise to the brain.

“If there were a drug that produced the same brain benefits as exercise, everyone would be taking it. Now our study suggests that at least some of these benefits might one day be available in pill form,” said study senior author Saul Villeda, Ph.D., a UCSF assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy and of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science.

To conduct their study, the researchers took blood from aged mice who had exercised regularly for seven weeks and implanted it to older mice who are sedentary. They found that this treatment produced dramatic improvements in learning and memory in the older mice.

They then identified 30 candidate proteins that could be responsible for these improvements. Two of these proteins – Gpld1 and Pon1 – stood out as particularly important for metabolic processes. The researchers then chose to study Gpld1 in more detail because few previous studies had investigated it before. Lucky for them, it turned out to be the determining protein!

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