“There are three side effects of acid: enhanced long-term memory, decreased short-term memory, and I forget the third.”
This just in….you don’t have to drop acid for enhanced long-term memory. Sorry Mr. Leary. Acid is out. New method is in. What is it? Just step outside your front door. Seriously. But make sure you’ve got running shoes on.
It’s been nearly two years since I ran the Grand Canyon. Yet my mind continues to drift back to that day, enamored by its majestic vistas, sandy beaches along the Colorado, narrow trails etched in the sheer cliffs. It was great day for all that dared to go the distance. I hope to hold on to that memory for a long time.
Of course there are memories I’d just rather forget. Like the time I performed a perfect swan dive on the steep downhill along Santiago trail. I remember yelling like a child before I hit the ground. Boy did my palms get torn up. It wasn’t the best career move either. A little awkward at the office shaking hands with scabs the size of meatballs on my palms.
Of course the aging process shows no mercy, and it’s just a matter of time before our memories fade. But if you’re a runner you’ll be happy to hear that you now have science your side. It was once believed by neurobiologists that the human brain, upon reaching adulthood, was incapable of generating new cells. At this point it was thought brain cells could only die off, never to be replaced. That was until scientific studies in recent decades proved otherwise.
The human brain is three times the size of other mammals of equivalent body size and has somewhere between 50 – 100 billion neurons. Deep in our brains is a section called the hippocampus which, among other things, is responsible for long- term memory and spatial navigation (finding your way around a city or, in the case of a rat, through a labyrinth). What’s unique about the hippocampus is that it is one of the areas of the brain that science has discovered is capable of generating new cells.
Scientists have also learned recently that running plays a large role in the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, and in improving memory. A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science showed that running increased brain cell formation in the hippocampus section of the brain in mice. Its method was quite simple but very revealing. One group of mice was given unlimited access to a running wheel. This group of mice voluntarily clocked an average of 15 miles a day! The other group didn’t have access to an exercise contraption, and was sedentary during the study.
The results were clear. The study identified that running contributed to the generation of hundreds of thousands of new cells in the brains of the running mice. More importantly, along with the new grey matter came an enhanced mental capacity. The running mice scored nearly twice as high as their sedentary counterparts in a memory test. The greatest improvement came later in the experiment when the test became progressively more difficult for the mice.
While the results of the Cambridge study are clear—that running stimulates the growth of new brain cells—science is yet to figure out how or why this happens. Some postulate that it’s the result of increased blood flow to the brain. Others believe its because running limits the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which happens to be linked to the shrinking of the hippocampus.
So when someone at your next dinner party asks you why you run, it might be appropriate to ask them first if they can remember your name. If they can’t, then tell them they now have their answer.