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Six minutes of vigorous exercise increased brain levels of BDNF – a protein that may protect against Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions – as much as five times more than light exercise, a new study has found.

Researchers measured BDNF levels after fasting, light exercise, or vigorous exercise in healthy, physically active adults. Participants fasted for 20 hours, engaged in light cycling (90 minutes at 25 percent VO2 max), or engaged in vigorous cycling (six 40-second bursts at 100 percent VO2 max interspersed with 20 seconds of light cycling).

They found that on average, 90 minutes of light cycling increased serum BDNF levels by approximately 6 percent. However, six 40-second vigorous-intensity cycling bursts increased both plasma and serum BDNF levels four to five times more than light cycling.

BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is a growth factor that controls and promotes the growth of new neurons and is necessary for the formation and storage of memories and overall cognitive performance. BDNF exerts robust protective effects on crucial neuronal circuitry involved in Alzheimer’s disease. Evidence suggests that endothelial cells that line the blood vessels of the brain release BDNF in response to shear stress – the increase in force that occurs during increased blood flow (as in exercise).

Interestingly, fasting for 20 hours had no effect on BDNF levels, but it did promote a ninefold increase in ketone delivery to the brain. Evidence suggests that ketones increase blood flow to the brain and improve memory and brain function in certain contexts. Learn more about the brain benefits of ketones in this clip featuring Dr. Dominic D'Agostino.

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