UCI MIND scientists discover exercise can reprogram genes

Contributed by Carl W. Cotman, PhD and Nicole C. Berchtold, PhD

It is increasingly recognized that exercise builds brain health. At a fundamental level, brain health and function depend on the expression of the brain’s genes, the building blocks of cells.

In a recent paper that appeared in the journal “Neurobiology of Aging” (2019), Drs. Carl Cotman, Nicole Berchtold and coworkers demonstrated that in the brains of healthy older people, exercise reprograms gene expression patterns to a more youthful state, even in cognitively normal people (75-100 yrs old).

Genes that were particularly targeted are those that boost cellular energy production and build synaptic connectivity, suggesting mechanisms by which exercise rejuvenates brain health and slows cognitive aging.

Their study is the first to report that exercise can reprogram gene expression in the human brain of cognitively healthy elderly individuals. In practical terms, this finding should encourage exercise participation for those who are sedentary.


From left to right: Maria Shriver, Dr. Carl Cotman, Dr. Nicole Berchtold in the HBO program The Alzheimer’s Project. Photo courtesy of Katja Heinemann/HBO.

Carl W. Cotman, PhD is the Founding Director of UCI MIND and Distinguished Professor of Neurology and Neurobiology and Behavior. He is internationally recognized for his contributions on how exercise builds brain health, and he is leading a national clinical trial of exercise, EXERT.

Nicole C. Berchtold, PhD is an Associate Project Scientist at UCI MIND in Dr. Cotman’s laboratory. The Cotman laboratory studies the mechanisms causing neuronal degeneration in Alzheimer’s disease and the development of interventions to promote successful aging.