Running, combined with visual experience, restores brain function

by Pete Farley
White matter fiber architecture of the brain. Credit: Human Connectome Project.

(Medical Xpress)—In a new study by UC San Francisco scientists, running, when accompanied by visual stimuli, restored brain function to normal levels in mice that had been deprived of visual experience in early life.

In addition to suggesting a novel therapeutic strategy for humans with blindness in one eye caused by a congenital cataract, droopy eyelid, or misaligned eye, the new research—the latest in a series of UCSF studies exploring effects of locomotion on —suggests that the adult brain may be far more capable of rewiring and repairing itself than previously thought.

In 2010, Michael P. Stryker, PhD, the W.F. Ganong Professor of Physiology, and Cris Niell, PhD, now at the University of Oregon, made the surprising discovery that neurons in the visual area of the mouse brain fired much more robustly whenever the mice walked or ran.

Earlier this year, postdoctoral fellow Yu Fu, PhD, Stryker and a number of colleagues built on these findings, identifying and describing the neural circuit responsible for this locomotion-induced "high-gain state" in the of the .

Neither of these studies made clear, however, whether this circuit might have broader functional or clinical significance.

It has been known since the 1960s that visual areas of the brain do not develop normally if deprived of visual input during a "critical period" of brain development early in life. For example, in humans, if amblyopia ("lazy eye") or other major are not surgically corrected in infancy, vision will never be normal in the affected eye—if such individuals lose sight in their "good" eye in later life, they are blind.

In the new research, published June 26, 2014 in the online journal eLife, Stryker and UCSF postdoctoral fellow Megumi Kaneko, MD, PhD, closed one eyelid of mouse pups at about 20 days after birth, and that eye was kept closed until the mice reached about five months of age.

As expected, the mice in which one eye had been closed during the critical developmental period showed sharply reduced neural activity in the part of the brain responsible for vision in that eye.

As in the previous UCSF experiments in this area, some mice were allowed to run freely on Styrofoam balls suspended on a cushion of air while recordings were made from their brains.

Little improvement was seen in the mice that had been deprived of visual input either when they were simply allowed to run or when they received visual training with the deprived eye not accompanied by walking or running.

But when the mice were exposed to the while they were running or walking, the results were dramatic: within a week the brain responses to those stimuli from the deprived eye were nearly identical to those from the normal eye, indicating that the circuits in the visual area of the brain representing the deprived eye had undergone a rapid reorganization, known in neuroscience as "plasticity."

Interestingly, this recovery was stimulus-specific: if the activity of the mice was tested using a stimulus other than that they had seen while running, little or no recovery of function was apparent.

"We have no idea yet whether running puts the human cortex into a high-gain state that enhances plasticity, as it does the visual cortex of the mouse," Stryker said, "but we are designing experiments to find out."

More information: Sensory experience during locomotion promotes recovery of function in adult visual cortex. Megumi Kaneko, Michael P Stryker. eLife (2014). DOI:

Related Stories

Brain scientist continues exploring the brain

date Jun 24, 2014

A Montana State University assistant professor in neuroscience is part of a team that has made progress understanding how the brain processes visual information. In addition to adding to the basic understanding of brain function, ...

Re-tuning responses in the visual cortex

date Dec 21, 2012

New research led by Shigeru Tanaka of the University of Electro-Communications and visiting scientist at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute has shown that the responses of cells in the visual cortex can be ...

Recommended for you

Men and women could use different cells to process pain

date 18 hours ago

We have known for some time that there are sex differences when it comes to experiencing pain, with women showing a higher sensitivity to painful events compared to men. While we don't really understand w ...

Pupillary reflex enhanced by light inside blind spot

date 19 hours ago

University of Tokyo researchers have found that the light reflex of the pupil is modulated by light stimulation inside the blind spot in normal human observers, even though that light is not perceived.

How your brain knows it's summer

date Jun 29, 2015

Researchers led by Toru Takumi at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan have discovered a key mechanism underlying how animals keep track of the seasons. The study, published in Proceedings of the Na ...

His and her pain circuitry in the spinal cord

date Jun 29, 2015

New research released today in Nature Neuroscience reveals for the first time that pain is processed in male and female mice using different cells. These findings have far-reaching implications for our ba ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jun 27, 2014
What do you do when you have idiopathic polyneuropathy, and exertion enhances the pain on your whole body?

Imagine the character "Pinhead" from the movie "Hellraiser," and that's what sometimes happens to my face on a Summer day after walking just 0.6 miles, not to mention other parts of my body.

Exertion is provably not the cause of the problem, just as a warm shower is provably not the cause, but it does greatly enhance the problem sometimes. Other times it doesn't seem to matter.

I used to try to walk 3 miles per day, just to try to keep some activity, and I knew I needed it because I was having atrophy in my leg muscles from being sedentary. I can still leg press about 500lbs, though did over 650 when i was healthy, and I've never worked out regularly or even semi-regularly. Anyway, starting maybe 5 years ago, my legs start burning worse than ever before and earlier during walking or running. Then 2 years ago the polyneuropathy started being enhanced by brisk, prolonged walking.
Jun 27, 2014
This produces a problem, because I need to exercise to stay at least semi-healthy, but exercising produces level 10 pain, even when on 3 or 4 neurontins per day. Actually this is beyond "crying" like on an emergency room pain scale chart. Neuropathy hurts worse than bone, flesh, or organ pain. If you've ever smashed your finger in a car door (friend accidentally closed it on me,) or your foot under a table, this hurts at least a level or two more than that, and it is everywhere, and it doesn't stop, and it's unpredictable. When it happens, it is so bad that you CANNOT oppose it, you have to find somewhere to stop whatever you're doing and just sit or lay down and try to blank your mind out to stop the pain.

Now how in the hell am I supposed to exercise? If this happens a half-mile away from the house, I'll be helpless for several minutes to an hour.

If something similar (say syncope) happens in a gym, the customers are spooked and they call an ambulance, and perhaps rightly so.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.