Exercising Your Brain Could Make Your Unborn Kids Smarter

Neuroscientists have known for decades that enriching sensory and motor experience early in life confers lifelong cognitive and learning benefits, actually making the brain physically larger in certain regions, such as cellular layers of cerebral cortex. But Dr. Evgenia Kalogeraki and colleagues of Gottingen University, writing in the January 2019 issue of E-neuro, have now shown in mice that giving the young enriched sensory and motor experiences actually confers the benefits of early enrichment on their unborn progeny, regardless of whether those offspring have enriched sensorimotor experiences of their own.

Employing the EE/SC brain plasticity paradigm in mice, in which one set of mice (Enriched Environment --EE condition) is raised in a large cages filled with diverse objects that stimulate sensory activity and with features such as ladders that allow young mice to exercise, climb and improve their balance, while a control set of mice are raised in much smaller “standard Cages” (SC) that lack features for enriched sensorimotor stimulation, the researchers replicated earlier research showing that the cognitive/behavioral benefits of early enrichment can be passed down to the next generation.

But Kalogeraki et al then extended these findings, demonstrating that early enrichment both indefinitely extends the period over which the brain can show plasticity to new experiences, while transmitting this extended plasticity to their unborn offspring. In particular, the Gottingen researchers found that EE test subjects—but not matched SC subjects—demonstrated changes to the brain through monocular deprivation (patching one eye) well after the “critical period” where such changes were thought possible. While in SC animals, patching one eye produces changes to the brain and vision only if performed before the end of the “critical period” of 110 days post-natal, in EE animals, eye-patching altered “ocular dominance” in the brain (which eye most strongly drives neurons in the visual cortex) throughout the animals’ lifetimes.

Children with obesity also have more risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure and high cholesterol than their normal weight peers. In a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, almost 60% of children who were overweight had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD), and 25% had two or more CVD risk factors.

Further, the lifelong extension of visual brain plasticity passed down to offspring of EE test subjects, even when those offspring were raised in SC environments.

Curiously, Kalogeraki et al also found that the trans-generational benefits of raising the young in enriched environment were much stronger for female test subjects than for male subjects, suggesting that epigenetic (non-Mendelian) transmission of signals from parents to offspring associated with enriched early experience occurs in the egg cell or uterus.

This new research reinforces the importance of giving your children enriched exposure to sensory, motor and intellectual experiences throughout their development. Such enrichment could not only make your children smarter, with brains that remain “plastic” for a lifetime, but also convey the same benefits to your grandchildren.