PhotoLacing up your running shoes to hit the trails or treadmill may have benefits beyond the physical, scientists say. Running could actually make you smarter.

This finding comes by way of a new study from the National Institute of Health (NIH), which proved that runners’ bodies create a protein which can help create extra neurons in the brain.

To examine the effects of aerobic exercise on the brain, N.I.H. researchers first studied mice, then monkeys and people. If you’ve ever noticed that you feel sharper after a run, this study’s finding might explain why.

Improved mental performance

The researchers isolated mice’s muscle cells and covered them in a peptide that caused their cell metabolism to believe that aerobic exercise was taking place. After their “workout,” the researchers noticed that a protein called Cathepsin B (CTSB) showed up in their blood.

Previous studies have not found a link between CTSB (the protein that helps sore muscles recover) and increased brain activity, the New York Times notes. However, upon adding CTSB to other living neurons in petri dishes, researchers found that “those brain cells started making more proteins related to neurogenesis” (a phenomenon that could make you smarter).

The team followed up its study of mice with a trial on human volunteers and monkeys. As was the case with mice, Cathepsin B appeared in the bloodstreams of participants post-exercise.

More exercise, more CTSB

Tests designed to study runners’ memory and thinking revealed an undeniable link between CTSB and running. Volunteers showed increased mental performance after their run -- and the more often they hit the treadmill, the higher their test scores soared.

At the end of four months, participants who exercised intensely on a treadmill for an hour or more each day, three times a week, had the highest levels of Cathepsin B in their bloodstreams.

“In humans, changes in CTSB levels correlated with fitness and hippocampus-dependent memory function,” the study’s authors said in a paper. “Our findings suggest CTSB as a mediator of effects of exercise on cognition.”

The study has been published in Cell Metabolism.

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