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Exercise activates the endocannabinoid system to promote learning and memory formation.

Scientists have identified robust links between physical exercise and brain health. Some of the mechanisms that drive the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain include increases in brain volume and connectivity, improved blood flow, enhanced synaptic plasticity, and increased neurogenesis – the formation of new neurons. Findings from a 2020 study suggest that moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise improves motor sequence memory via endocannabinoid action on the hippocampus.

Motor sequence memory involves learning predefined sequences of interrelated motor actions, such as playing the piano or dancing. The hippocampus interacts with various neural networks to support the formation of motor sequency memory.

Endocannabinoids are small lipid molecules produced in the body that bind to cannabinoid receptors in the central and peripheral nervous systems. Endocannabinoids regulate many physiological processes, including movement control, pain processing, brain development, and learning and memory. The two major endocannabinoids in the body are anandamide and 2-arachindonyl glycerol.

The study involved 15 healthy adults (average age, 23 years) who had at least fair respiratory fitness, as measured via VO2 max. Participants completed a serial reaction time task (a widely used measure of learning and memory) before and after three conditions: moderate-intensity exercise, vigorous-intensity exercise, and rest. Prior to performing the task, participants consumed a standardized carbohydrate-rich breakfast. During the task, the investigators measured the participants' behavior, brain activity, and circulating anandamide (endocannabinoid) levels.

They found that vigorous-intensity exercise markedly improved motor sequence memory compared to rest. Moderate-intensity exercise also improved motor sequence memory, but to a lesser degree. The improvements coincided with increased levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide and enhanced hippocampal activity.

These findings suggest that vigorous-intensity exercise promotes motor sequence memory and learning and underscore the benefits of exercise on cognitive function. Learn about the beneficial effects of aerobic exercise in our overview article.

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