Full text of award-winning neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki’s talk titled “Exercise and the Brain” at TEDxOrlando conference. In this talk, Wendy discusses her research which focuses on understanding the patterns of brain activity underlying long-term memory as well as the role of aerobic exercise in improving learning, memory and cognition.
Wendy Suzuki – Neuroscientist
How exciting to be here!
What I’m going to try and do today is add to the amazing lineup of speakers today by bringing the brain into our discussion of the creative spark.
And I want to do that by telling you about some of the newest research that I’ve been doing in my neuroscience research lab at New York University, asking the question: Can aerobic exercise, that is can going to the gym actually improve your learning, memory and cognition?
I also want to address the question of whether increased aerobic exercise can also make you more creative.
Now, I remember the day that I realized I wanted to become a neuroscientist. I was a freshman at UC Berkeley, and I was taking a freshman seminar class, with just 10 or 15 of us, called “The Brain and Its Potential,” taught by Marian Diamond.
She was standing at the front of the classroom, and up there at the front, she had this beautiful hat box. And with her gloved hands, she opened that hat box, and out she pulled a real, live, fixed human brain.
Now, it was the very first time I’d seen a human brain. And what she told us was that what she was holding in her hands was the most complex structure known to mankind; it’s the only structure that can think about itself.
And one of the most amazing things about the brain is that it can change as a function of the environment; it can learn; it can grow. And I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever heard in my whole life.
And I didn’t know it that day, but that idea of the brain and its potential and what’s called neural plasticity – the ability to change as a function of the environment – was going to become my life’s work in science. That’s what I want to tell you about today.
So I started out studying a structure in the brain called the hippocampus. It’s really important for long-term memory. But more recently, I’ve become interested in how exercise can actually improve our learning, memory and cognition. And I got interested in that not because I read a paper or went to a talk; I went to the gym.
When I turned 40, I decided I wanted to get in the best shape of my life, and I went to the gym. And the class that I found that kept me coming back to the gym on a really regular basis was a class called “IntenSati,” developed by this amazing fitness instructor named Patricia Moreno in New York City.
Now, IntenSati is unique because it takes physical movements from kickbox, dance, yoga and martial arts, but the unique part is that it pairs each physical movement with a positive, spoken affirmation.
What do I mean by that?
So, in IntenSati, we don’t just punch; we say, “I am strong now.” And the class says it back to you.
So what happens is that you not only get that great aerobic exercise, but because you’re speaking out, you actually get an increase in aerobic output and it makes you feel great.
So the bottom line was I got in great shape. But there were two amazing benefits that I noticed.
One was that I had this amazing motivation; I felt like a million bucks after I came out of this class. And I couldn’t wait to go back. And I thought, “My gosh, Patricia Moreno is an amazing teacher to instill that kind of motivation.”
And then I thought, “Well, wait a second, I’m a teacher. I wonder if my students feel that way after my neuroanatomy class.”
I’m going to come back to that in a second.
The second amazing benefit was that when I went back to work – when I started doing IntenSati I was writing a lot of grants – and I noticed that as I got more regular with the workouts, my writing got easier. I was able to make associations better; I was able to focus better, and I thought, “This is amazing. I want to look at the neuroscience literature to understand what’s going on.”
And I looked at the literature – a lot of new studies coming out as well as looking at some of the older studies that had led to our current understanding.
And when I looked at those, I found a very familiar name. That name was Marian Diamond. So she was not only my undergraduate advisor, but she was a real pioneer in neuroscience research, and really only one of the only women working in this field back in the late 1950s and ’60s, when she discovered that when you raise rats in what she called an “enriched environment,” with lots of toys to play with, other rats to play with, and they run around a lot.
And you compared their brains to rats raised in what she called an “impoverished environment,” with no toys, just a couple of rats in a small box, what you can do is measure their brain. You measure, actually, the thickness of that outer covering of their brain called the cortex.
And what she found is that the rats raised in enriched environments had cortices that were actually thicker; their brain grew as a function of this enriched environment. And later studies showed that exercise, the increased exercise that those rats were getting because they were running around a lot more, was a big factor in that brain change.
So I thought, “Okay, this is an area that I really want to get to know.” And as a professor, the best way to get to know a topic area is to teach a class. So I decided I’m going to teach a class at NYU called “Can Exercise Change Your Brain?”
And I decided because I got inspired to do this because of exercise, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could bring exercise into the classroom and not only teach students about what exercise is doing to their brain but also teach them, have them experience what exercise felt like?”
So I thought, “I could do this.”
So I decided to go to the gym, and of course I loved IntenSati, so I became a certified IntenSati instructor and a certified fitness instructor. I could tell you, “Oh, it was so hard. I was teaching classes, I was writing grants,” but the truth is it was so much fun.
It was really fun because I got to learn a whole new way to move, a whole new way to motivate students, and I stayed in great shape. So there was nothing better.
So I had this class; I was teaching. I was going to teach an hour of aerobic exercise. I trained for six months to be able to teach in front of this class – I had never done this before, but I thought it’d be fun – so teach an hour of aerobic exercise, an hour of IntenSati, followed by an hour-and-a-half lecture on the effects of exercise in the brain.
But then I realized I had my first study right there: my students could be my subjects in my first study. All I had to do was test them cognitively at the beginning, at the end of the semester and compare their performance to a class that didn’t exercise and ask whether, in fact, exercise could improve their cognitive performance.
So that’s exactly what I did.
And before I tell you what our prediction was and what our results were, I just want to take you back for a moment to September 7, 2009, which was the first day of this “Can Exercise Change Your Brain?” class.
And it’s seared in my memory mainly because I was really scared and nervous. I give many, many lectures; I love giving lectures, but this one, I was very nervous.
Why? Because my goal was to actually try and inspire these kids to love exercise in the way that Patricia Moreno inspired me, but also inspire them to love neurobiology and the brain and plasticity, the way that Marian Diamond inspired me.
So I had a pretty high bar, and I was pretty scared to step out in front of that classroom. But I have to say, I think the students were a bit scared too. They’d never come to a class where the instructor came in workout clothes; they’d never sweated in front of their professor, and I got a lot of nervous laughter when I told them they were going to have to say positive affirmations.
No, not say, yell positive affirmations in class. But I have to say, it was the most memorable first class I’ve ever taught. The students really got into it. Okay, there was nervous laughter and a lot of giggling, but they really got into it.
They were shouting the affirmations; they were really going all out in the workout, and the best thing was that motivation and that inspiration oozed over into our academic, our lecture, part. They remained engaged, asked lots of questions. It was a fantastic first class and a fantastic semester.
So what did we find?
So our prediction goes back to that structure that I said was important for long-term memory, the hippocampus. It goes back to the hippocampus because the hippocampus is one of only two brain structures where new brain cells, new neurons, are born. So you and I have shiny, new hippocampal cells being born in our hippocampus.
But the cool thing is that experimental studies in animals have shown that increased aerobic exercise can actually enhance the birth of those new hippocampal neurons and make them live even longer.
So our prediction was that this increased aerobic exercise in my NYU students would actually improve their learning and memory, improve their ability to learn new pieces of information and improve their ability to retain those new pieces of information.
Did we find that?
Well, we tested them on a whole battery of different cognitive tests, and what we found was one significant improvement in my class. That improvement was in the ability to encode new long-term memories.
What task was that?
It was a complicated task; it was actually a quite difficult task. Students were given a really complex geometrical image – it was like an etch-a-sketch image – and then after a delay, they would have to discriminate between that etch-a-sketch image and one that looked very, very similar to it.
My students got significantly faster at identifying the correct image that they saw before. So they’re able to separate out things that are coming in your memory.
For example, you’re meeting lots of new people here today, and so you might be better, if you exercise and come to my class, at differentiating between the faces of different people that you meet today. So that’s a very, very useful thing to be able to do.
So, is this new? What is new about this?
Well, it’s new and exciting because – I have to say, we are not the only people, my lab is not the only lab interested in the effects of exercise, but the majority of the work has been done on looking at the effects of exercise in the elderly population.
Because cognitive decline is a major health issue in the elderly, not to even mention Alzheimer’s disease. The exciting news in the elderly population is that increased aerobic exercise has clearly been shown to improve cognition. So that’s great, but the idea there is that there’s decline already, so you have a little bit of room to see improvement.
What about my healthy, young, very smart NYU neuroscience majors? They’re at the peak of their cognitive abilities, as are you and I.
Could exercise actually help us? Our studies suggest that, yes, they can.
Now, we’re not only interested in learning, memory and cognition. But there’s a really exciting link to the topic of today’s conference. That is creativity. And that comes from one of the newest directions of study of the hippocampus.
We’ve known for a very, very long time that exercise can improve – sorry – that the hippocampus is important for long-term memory, but recent studies have suggested the hippocampus is also important for creativity and imagination.
Because patients with hippocampal damage have significant impairments at being able to imagine new situations. So we ask a patient with hippocampal damage, “Describe for me a tropical beach scene” – they’ve never been to a tropical beach. They can barely say anything about sand or water, whereas a control subject would be able to tell you about the white sand, and the Corona in their left hand with that an umbrella in it, all these different details.
So, the idea is the hippocampus is not only important for putting new associations in mind that help you remember the events like this in your past – it will be in your past – but also important for putting new concepts together in unique ways, the basis of both creativity and imagination.
So what we want to do – we haven’t done this – is to look at the effects of exercise not only on learning and memory but on increased creativity as well.
So what’s the bottom line here?
The bottom line is simple: Increased aerobic exercise can improve learning, memory and, possibly, creativity.
What’s more to know? And everybody wants a magic pill to get smarter. Well, this isn’t a pill, and it comes with a lot more sweat than a pill, but it can help you. It’s free. It helps you every day, and our goal over the next ten years is trying to figure out exactly how that is helping you, what exactly is changing in the brain.
So, I only have one question for you?
Who wants to go to the gym? Anybody? Okay. Great.