How sport affects the brain and the stress of aging

Written by Alyssa Mardirossian, CNN

As most people know, sport requires a lot of energy and time. And the changing routine of an athlete can leave a big dent in the inner-workings of the brain.

Fitness trackers are meant to measure and show you how you’re actually performing — but they don’t account for the full scope of the athlete’s daily wear and tear. Thanks to a related treatment technique called exercise biomarker profiling , researchers have learned a lot about how a good performance translates into a lot of brainpower.

“The athlete’s brain is a lot more active when he’s doing pretty effective fitness,” says Daniel Belinsky, chief technology officer of Massachusetts-based company Bio-Reference Laboratories, which is researching biomarker analysis in the science of performance.

The body is the ultimate car

Typically, genes for metabolic, social and physiological systems — such as muscle, heart and lungs — govern the response to exercise. And for the purposes of science, the brain is the ultimate car.

“The brain has over 200 genes that control many different functions,” Belinsky says.

He adds that the current benchmark to measure how an individual’s mental activity levels are reflected in their biological function — of the kind that might translate into brain function — is executive function.

A key component of this process involves signing a paper or electronic signature and leaving it alone, perhaps in bed or on a desk for a few hours.

“Your brain gets really busy processing this stuff,” Belinsky says.

The brain is split into two parts — the neocortex, an outer layer that controls language and organizing memories, and the medial prefrontal cortex, an outer layer that processes other kinds of information, such as contextual information and decision-making.

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Reconstructing memories during lab tests in January 2019 Credit: UCLA Newsroom

When an individual’s brain is engaged, the neocortex becomes engaged, and the majority of the brain works.

Also, during an intense training session (such as the demanding aerobics workout in “Rocky Balboa”), Belinsky explains, the endorphins in the body, including the brain, “become even more energized, and so you think, you feel like your brain is running at capacity.”

Brain cancer often leaves affected people permanently impaired

To conduct the ultimate test of nerve integrity, Belinsky says researchers need to develop biomarker analyses that are accurate in detecting widespread dysfunction in the brain.

“Unfortunately, brain cancers, especially those in the early stages, can actually go undetected,” Belinsky says. “Cancer treatments can also reduce the amount of available oxygen in the brain. In some cases, patients can’t do some activities that they can easily do.”

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According to current research, in “some patients, there is a very high excess amount of cytokines,” he says. These are proteins that bind to DNA and inhibit cell function.

Recently, researchers in Oregon created a high-capacity electrocardiogram that analyzed neurological information in the brain via electricity delivered by electrodes implanted on the scalp. Results suggest that anti-inflammatory chemicals intercede with overactive cytokines, reducing dementia-like symptoms.

The key to distinguishing cellular damage is to determine which biomarkers are elevated — and they can be easily checked.

“For a cell with reduced viability of our skin, we usually detect it immediately,” Belinsky says. “With a healthy brain, you can watch these changes over several days.”

A proper cognitive test can also improve the results.

“The brain’s memory performance really gets tested in a test where you put the person in different memory loops. You give them a day or two to remember something before you start to compare the test results,” Belinsky says.

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He adds that brain cells that function well are generally capable of catching up in time. “So if we can give a memory training program that would help a person become aware of the cues that relate to memory, they’d have a better chance of remembering what we expect them to remember,” he says.

According to Belinsky, neuroscientists can now use current knowledge about how a workout impacts the brain to determine what kind of training — such as cross-training or endurance exercise — is best for a given individual.

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