Exercise Improves Mental Health in ADHD Children

Researchers from Dartmouth College found that exercise improves memory in children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD.

The data collected over the past few years has clearly shown that exercise is able to create neurobiological changes. This conclusion was announced by David Bucci, Associate Professor of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College.

The research found the effects of exercise on the brain were different depending on the age of the individual. Researchers further identified a gene that mediates the degree where exercise would have a beneficial effect. Bucci said this conclusion would have implications in terms of using exercise as a tool to intervene in the development of mental illness.

Bucci began his study of the link between exercise and memory with ADHD. This is one of the most common childhood mental disorders where the alarming choice of treatment is medication.

He said, “The notion of pumping children full of psycho-stimulants at an early age is troublesome. We frankly don’t know the long-term effects of administering drugs at an early age – drugs that affect the brain – so looking for alternative therapies is clearly important.”

Evidence presented from colleagues at the University of Vermont lead Bucci to focus on finding the relationship between exercise and ADHD. That study observed that ADHD children in Vermont summer camps, athletic events or team sports responded better to behavioral intervention compared to sedentary children with ADHD. While the empirical data was lacking, this was persuasive enough for Bucci to undertake his own study.

During their study, they observed laboratory rats with ADHD-like behavior, and showed that exercise reduced the extent of these behaviors. The researchers also observed that this was more beneficial to female than male rats, similar to what was observed between male and female ADHD children. From this finding, the research moved into investigating the mechanisms that affect the exercise and learning and memory improvement connection, primarily a brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This factor helped in brain development as the degree of BDNF in exercising rats correlated with improved memory. It also found that this factor had an extended effect in adolescents compared to adults.

Bucci said, “The implication is that exercising during development, as your brain is growing, is changing the brain in concert with normal developmental changes, resulting in your having more permanent wiring of the brain in support of things like learning and memory. It seems important to exercise early in life.”

With this latest paper, it was a move to take the studies of exercise and memory in rats and apply the same to humans. Bucci further explained that an individual’s genotype for BDNF affected whether exercise developed learning and memory. He said ”This could mean that you may be able to predict which ADHD child, if we genotype them and look at their DNA, would respond to exercise as a treatment and which ones wouldn’t.  The interesting question in terms of mental health and cognitive function is how exercise affects mental function and the brain.”

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