The process of developing new brain cells in the adult brain is called adult neurogenesis, the scientists explained.
The researchers found that mice that spent time running on wheels not only developed twice the normal number of new neurons, but also showed an increased ability to distinguish new objects from familiar objects.
“Our research indicates that exercise-induced increase in neurogenesis improves pattern separation by supporting unique and detailed long-term representations of similar but nevertheless different memory items,” explained lead investigator Josef Bischofberger, professor at University of Basel in Switzerland.
“Pattern separation is involved in many memory tasks of everyday life. For example, when learning the game of chess, it is critically important to remember the different shapes of pieces like the pawn and bishop,” Bischofberger explained.
For the study, the researchers tested two groups of mice that were housed either without (sedentary) or with running wheels (voluntarily running) using a novel object recognition task to assess learning and long-term memory.
The researchers found that whereas distinct objects were remembered and recognized by both cohorts of mice, only the running mice could faithfully distinguish similar looking objects.
Investigators determined therefore that the running mice had developed better pattern separation capabilities than sedentary mice.
To investigate further, the researchers looked for changes in the brains of the mice. By using markers that could identify newly-formed brain cells, they found that running mice developed about twice as many new cells.
The study was published in the journal of Brain Plasticity.