Niha Zubair, Arivale Clinical Research Scientist, PhD
Many studies have shown that exercising is good for the health of your brain. In addition to enhancing learning and memory in both children and adults, research suggests that regular exercise in adulthood may help stave off dementia.
A study published last month in Cell Reports and covered by the New York Times under the headline “Do Fathers Who Exercise Have Smarter Babies?” takes the question of exercise’s benefits on the brain to another level–looking at the effect of parental exercise on offspring.
As per the Times, the new study indicates some of the brain-related health benefits associated with exercise could be passed along from father to child.
Before discussing the study’s findings, it’s worth providing a brief background on the general idea behind it, namely epigenetics.
Most people are aware of the role of genetics–your DNA structure–in inheritance of traits or disease risk. In contrast, epigenetics refers to inherited changes in gene expression that don’t involve changes to the actual DNA sequence. In other words, these biological mechanisms that can turn a gene “on” or “off” are passed on to the next generation.
It has been known for many years that nutritional factors–such as insufficient amounts of the B-vitamin folate–or high levels of stress during pregnancy could cause epigenetic changes in offspring. Less research has been done on epigenetic effects in fathers.
The study out of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases looks at the epigenetic effects of physical and cognitive exercise (referred to as “environmental enrichment”) in male mice.
Researchers raised genetically identical mice in a sedentary lifestyle. Upon reaching adulthood, half the mice remained sedentary while the other half were placed in cages containing running wheels, toys, and games.
After 10 weeks, the now-active mice had stronger connections between neurons in the hippocampus–a part of the brain involved in memory and learning–and performed better on cognitive tests. These results were in line with previous research.
However, researchers also found offspring born to the active males and sedentary females showed stronger neuronal connections in the hippocampus than offspring born to sedentary fathers. The offspring of active fathers also showed slight advantages in learning and memory than the offspring of sedentary fathers.
Researchers determined the effect was due to the higher levels of two microRNAs–tiny molecules that help regulate gene expression–found in both the brains and sperm of the active mice.
They note that their observation that the epigenetic phenomenon occurs even when environmental enrichment is first initiated in adulthood–at a time when brain development is complete–has important implications, suggesting that physical and mental exercise before conception by fathers, as well as mothers, may provide brain benefits for their offspring.
There are two important caveats to keep in mind.
First, this study–and most other epigenetic studies – was performed in mice so the implications in humans are unknown.
Secondly, the environmental enrichment used to create the brain benefits consisted of a combination of physical exercise (running wheels) and mental stimulation (toys, games, and cognitive challenges)–it was not simply physical exercise as implied by the headline in the New York Times. This makes the finding more consistent with data in humans showing that both physical and mental exercise are important to offset cognitive decline with aging–neither alone will exert full protective effects.
For men or women thinking about starting a family or having more children, preconception wellness is important for both father and mother. Healthy nutrition, regular exercise, managing stress, getting adequate sleep, and losing excess body weight can provide important benefits for both you and your future baby.