Aging in humans is associated with a progressive decline in cognitive function, the consequences of which are enormous for affected individuals. Any scientific advance that could delay or prevent age-related cognitive decline would have a profound impact at every level of society given the demographic changes that are occurring with an exponentially increasing percentage of elderly individuals and the percentage of those individuals who are affected by cognitive decline. The use of animal models has greatly accelerated the pace of research on factors that influence cognitive function and age-related changes. One of the most robust interventions that can enhance cognitive function is physical activity. This has been shown in organisms ranging from rodents to humans. Despite the importance and potency of this intervention, the mechanisms by which exercise enhances cognitive activity remain elusive. Here we propose to test the provocative hypothesis that there are factors secreted by muscle that promote neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity to maintain cognitive function and that these factors are increased by muscle activity during exercise ("exercise factors"). This hypothesis is firmly rooted in the expanding field of research on muscle as a secretory organ, participating in various endocrine networks that function to regulate physiological phenomena such as energy metabolism, angiogenesis, and bone formation. Within the context of regulation of cognitive function, we propose that a "muscle-brain" axis is an evolutionarily conserved endocrine pathway that links two primordial organ systems, with muscle-derived factors promoting maintenance of neuronal homeostasis. We will use both in vitro and in vivo approaches to explore this hypothesis in murine models of neurogenesis, neuronal function, and cognitive activity. Capitalizing on our expertise in plasma proteomics, we will characterize the muscle proteome from control muscle and muscle altered by exercise or aging. Both muscle and brain (hippocampus) will be tested for transcriptional and epigenetic changes induced by exercise, both to explore the mechanisms by which exercise modifies muscular and neuronal function and also to test for any "molecular memory" to explain any persistent effects of exercise on the brain. Direct tests of secretomes will be performed using parabiotic pairings and plasma injections, and candidate testing will include studies of neurogenesis in vitro and muscle-specific gene deletions in vivo. These multifaceted approaches will allow us to characterize the muscle-brain axis, to examine the molecular basis and regulation of that axis with exercise, and to understand the basis for the lasting effects of exercise on neuronal activity, each of which would provide an entirely new framework within which to understand the beneficial effects of physical activity on brain function and together offering a potentially revolutionary approach to the treatment of age-related cognitive decline.

Public Health Relevance

Physical exercise shows direct benefits to elderly humans including an increase in cognitive function and life quality. We will test the provocative idea tha factors produced in exercised muscle are secreted into the circulation where they gain access to the brain and induce cognitive benefits. Our transformative studies will take advantage of innovative experimental models and use proteomic and epigenetic tools to identify biological mediators and pathways responsible for the beneficial and rejuvenating effects of exercise on the brain. We will explore the mechanisms by which the muscle secretome changes during exercise, by which neural cells are modified by those secreted factors, and that mediate the possible persistence of those effects after the cessation of exercise (i.e., the epigenetic memory). The results of these studies have the potential to drastically alter our current concepts of the benefit of exercise on cells in the brain, on neurogenesis, and on cognitive function itself

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-BCMB-A (51))
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Wise, Bradley C
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Palo Alto Institute for Research & Edu, Inc.
Palo Alto
United States
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