New research is revealing to us an even more wondrous brain in its structure and functioning. The mind-body-brain connection is now highlighted like never before.
The brain is certainly the most complex organ in the human body, made up of hundreds of billions of cells (neurons) which collectively coordinate the maintenance of basic vital functions (breathing, heartbeat, digestion, sexual urges) as functions as advanced as thought, language, consciousness and memory.
This complexity is well illustrated by recent research which shows that the brain is even more complex than we usually imagine and that the human cerebral cortex can be subdivided into no less than 180 distinct regions, each with different anatomical and functional characteristics. Faced with such complexity, understanding how the brain works is without a doubt one of the greatest challenges facing modern science.
Traditionally, the brain has long been considered as a “separate” organ, as if it operates autonomously, without any interaction with the rest of the body. We now know that this is absolutely not the case and that the health of the brain directly influences that of the body (a healthy mind in a healthy body, as the saying goes).
Recently, it has been dramatically shown by a new neural tracing method that multiple areas of the brain involved in movement, cognition and emotion are directly linked to the adrenal glands, responsible for the production of stress hormones, which which could explain why negative emotions are often associated with various physical ailments.
The effectiveness of oriental practices
In other words, there is indeed an anatomical connection between the brain and the body, and our mental states can actually influence physical well-being, thereby establishing a molecular basis for psychosomatic illnesses. These results also suggest an explanation for the effectiveness of approaches such as yoga, mediation, martial arts or tai chi, centered on breathing and body posture in stress management.
This relationship between body and mind also exists in reverse, on the brain. The best example is undoubtedly physical exercise: numerous studies have indeed shown that regular physical activity has several positive effects on brain function and could even counteract the deterioration of cognitive functions that often accompanies aging.
Strengthen the brain through physical activity
A recent study helps to better understand this phenomenon. A team of American and German scientists observed that exercise caused the muscles to release certain proteins, including an enzyme called cathepsin B. The more active the animals, the more blood levels of cathepsin B were increased, and the authors showed that this increase stimulated the formation of new neurons and connections in the hippocampus (the seat of memory). This therefore suggests that cathepsin B secreted by moving muscles could play an important role in the positive impact of exercise on cognitive functions, in particular memory.
Improve your memory by being active
To test whether these observations were applicable to humans, the researchers recruited sedentary university students and the other underwent rigorous physical training several times a week.
After four months of follow-up, the researchers observed that cathepsin B levels increased in the blood of active students as their fitness improved, while those who remained inactive showed no change.
More interestingly, they observed a close link between this increase in cathepsin B and improved memory: the higher the levels of the protein, the better the results on memory tests (reproduction of a complex geometric figure seen earlier).
Regular physical activity is therefore a good way to stay in shape, both physically and mentally!
– Glasser MF et al. A multi-modal parcellation of human cerebral cortex. Nature 2016; 536: 171-8. – Dum RP et al. Motor, cognitive, and affective areas of the cerebral cortex influence the adrenal medulla. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 2016.
– Moon HY et al. Running-induced systemic cathepsin B secretion is associated with memory function. Cell Metab. 2016; 24: 332-40.
Physical activity is as good as medication