Vigorous Exercise Can Increase Brain Chemicals Zapped by Depression

By Sportfan123 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A new imaging study has shown intense exercise boosts two important neurotransmitters; glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This boost results in better mental fitness, according to the results of a newly released study done by researchers at the University of California Davis Health System.

The Study

The findings of the study were published in The Journal of Neuroscience and it offers new insight into how exercise may become an integral part of treating depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders linked with neurotransmitter deficiencies. Neurotransmitters drive communication between the brain cells that regulate physical and emotional health.

Dr. Richard Maddock, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California Davis Health System states, “Major depressive disorder is often characterized by depleted glutamate and GABA, which return to normal when mental health is restored.”

He further stated, “Our study shows that exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters.”

The research study also helps answer a question about the brain, an energy-intensive organ that uses a lot of fuel in the form of glucose and other carbohydrates during exercise, the team noted.
Dr. Maddock further states, “From a metabolic standpoint, vigorous exercise is the most demanding activity the brain encounters, much more intense than calculus or chess, but nobody knows what happens with all that energy. Apparently, one of the things it’s doing is making more neurotransmitters.”
To get a better grasp of how exercise affects the human brain, the team studied 38 healthy volunteers. Participants exercised on a stationary bicycle, reaching around 85 percent of their predicted maximum heart rate.

To measure glutamate and GABA levels, the team conducted a series of imaging studies using a 3-tesla MRI to detect nuclear magnetic resonance spectra, which can identify many different compounds based on the magnetic behavior of hydrogen atoms in molecules.

The research team measured GABA and glutamate levels in two different portions of the brain immediately before and after three vigorous exercise sessions that lasted between eight and twenty minutes. They also made similar measurements for a control group who didn’t perform any exercises.

The team found glutamate or GABA levels increased in participants who exercised, but not in those who didn’t exercise.

Significant increases in these chemicals were found in the visual cortex, which processes visual information. Other increases were found in the cingulate cortex, which helps regulate the heart, emotions and some cognitive functions.

Maddock said, “There was a correlation between the resting levels of glutamate in the brain and how much people exercised during the preceding week. It’s preliminary information, but it’s very encouraging.”


The findings of the study point to the possibility that exercising could be used as a form of alternative therapy for depression, Maddock added. This could be particularly important for people under the age of 25, who sometimes experience more side effects from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor medications.

For future studies, Maddock and his team hope to test whether a less intensive activity, such as walking, can provide the same brain benefits.


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