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The Good News: Exercise Aids Learning, The Bad News: Beware What You Learn

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 12, 2012

Exercise may help ease a craving for drugs, and it also may make addiction harder to beat.

Researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign made this paradoxical discovery in their new study of cocaine- addicted mice. The timing of the exercise, it turns out, is critical. The findings are reported in The New York Times blog Tara Parker-Pope on Health.

Male mice that did and did not have running wheels in their cages were divided into separate groups and allowed to run, or sit, for a month. Then they were put in multi-room chambers in the lab, and given liquid cocaine, which they liked. If a rodent returns to a place where it had a drug or pleasurable experience and stays there, it’s called "conditioned place preference,” which scientists say shows addiction. All the mice were hooked. All the mice that had exercised kept it up, and some of the previously sedentary mice were giving running wheels. Researchers watched how all the mice reacted when the cocaine was stopped.

Mice that only began exercising after getting cocaine lost their place preference behavior easily. Mice that had been runners before getting cocaine lost their addictive behavior slowly, and some never did.

All the mice had been injected with a chemical that identifies new brain cells. The exercised mice had twice as many new brain cells as the sedentary mice, and those new cells were in the hippocampus, an important place for the ability to associate a new thought with its context. The exercised mice had learned—far more efficiently than their sedentary peers—to crave cocaine.

Psychology professor Justin H. Rhodes, an author of the study published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, emphasizes that he and colleagues looked only at one narrow aspect of exercise and addiction. "Exercise is good for you in almost every way,” he told Gretchen Reynolds, author of the post. But he added that by exercising "you do create a greater capacity to learn, and it’s up to each individual to use that capacity wisely.”

A story in Slate by Daniel Engber describes earlier experiments at Tufts University showing rats that exercised were less susceptible to the effects of certain stimulant drugs, and less inclined to crave drugs. Exercise activates the brain’s pleasure centers, which can give the exerciser a high, and it’s good. But researchers have found for some, exercise itself can be addicting.

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