Congratulations to Dr. Carl Cotman, professor of Neurology, Neurobiology and Behavior, and Biomedical Engineering at the University of California, Irvine who received an honorary doctorate from McGill University in Montreal as part of its 2012 commencement exercises. Dr. Cotman, who founded the UCI Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND), was awarded a Doctor of Science, honoris causa, in recognition of the many contributions he has made to our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related cognitive disorders throughout his distinguished career. He joins a select group of faculty to receive this honor.
In his invited convocation address, Dr. Cotman urged the 900 graduates in the audience to attend to their brain health now – before they reach the age of risk. In particular, he warned the graduates against sedentary lifestyles, noting that lack of physical activity is one of the greatest lifestyle risks for cognitive impairment. Tracing his pioneering research on the relationship of exercise to brain health back to the early 1990s, Dr. Cotman recalled discovering that strenuous physical activity preserved cognition among healthy 60- to 70-year-olds participating in the MacArthur Study of successful aging. At the time, the scientific literature lacked any evidence that exercise could benefit brain functioning. Nevertheless, Dr. Cotman pondered the possible association and hypothesized that exercise stimulates the synthesis of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which acts like “brain fertilizer” to promote the growth of neurons and make them both stronger and more resilient. Noting the skepticism of his students at the time, Dr. Cotman recalled finally identifying one with a background in physical therapy who was interested in conducting a study that involved measuring levels of BDNF in mice following exercise on a running wheel. Laying the foundation for the hundreds of studies that have now documented the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain, this study demonstrated that exercise increases levels of BDNF in areas of the brain involved in learning and memory – the very areas damaged in Alzheimer’s disease. BDNF, Dr. Cotman noted, “is a wonder drug for the brain, and we make it when we exercise.” Unlike other drugs, exercise has no side effects easily available to everyone.
Using the story of this discovery, Dr. Cotman urged McGill University graduates to “dream in life for your goals . . . use your imagination . . . be bold, believe in innovation and persist, even when many are skeptical . . . you have to be a pioneer. “
Click here to hear Dr. Cotman’s inspiring address.