Oxygen deficiency while doing a physical or mental activity can be highly damaging to the entire brain, leading to irreparable neuronal damage. However a new study has found that a controlled decrease in oxygen generates positive effects stimulating the development of new brain cells and favoring their connections or synapses.

An international group of researchers led by specialists from the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Gottingen, Germany, has shown in mice that demanding physical and mental activity triggers functional hypoxia or oxygen deficiency, which if effectively controlled could have consequences positive throughout the brain. According to a press release, controlled hypoxia stimulates the growth of new synapses and neurons, both in specific regions of the brain, such as the hippocampus as well as in the entire brain structure. Scientists believe that this phenomenon could partly explain the benefits of physical and mental activity during old age delaying the effects of aging on the brain.


In the research, recently in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, scientists put different demands on a group of genetically modified mice. The rodents had to concentrate to run on specially prepared wheels. When there was an oxygen deficit, a fluorescent dye was activated from an introduced protein, making the changes visible in the brain images. When comparing the results obtained in the study group with other mice that did not develop physical and mental activity, the scientists found that the rodents with hypoxia-induced by exercise showed an activation of the growth factor erythropoietin (EPO) in the brain.

This process is known for its stimulating effect on red blood cells, but at the same time, it promotes the formation of nerve cells and their interconnection in the brain in the form of synapses. In addition, the specialists found that neurons were especially benefited by the stimulating effect, much more than their auxiliary or glial cells.


The controlled hypoxia that is generated from a cognitive or motor challenge produces changes throughout the brain, but the hypoxic neurons developed to a greater extent in the hippocampus. Beyond this localized advantage, the results show a comprehensive model of neuroplasticity, according to specialists. This means that a neuronal activity associated with a specific task triggers mild hypoxia as a specific local response in different brain regions, as well as a comprehensive effect throughout the brain, which includes neurons and non-neuronal cells.


Taking into account that physical and mental activity promote different processes that improve global brain function, including mood and emotional well-being, the finding of this group of neuroscientists could lead to new therapeutic instances based on the benefits of controlled hypoxia. Now, experts are working on adapting the model developed in rodents so that it can be tested in humans. They plan to apply it to a study group focused on specific activity exercises with stationary bicycles.

If the same changes can be seen in humans, the new approach could be especially important for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, but at the same time, it could help to delay the effects of aging on the brain in elderly people and even function as an enhancer of brain activity in young and healthy people.