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New Study Reveals Dopamine’s Key Role in Boosting Cognitive Performance During Exercise

Researchers have uncovered the crucial role played by dopamine in enhancing cognitive performance during exercise. The neurotransmitter and hormone, associated with pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation, has long been known to increase during physical activity. The new findings suggest that dopamine is not only tied to the pleasure of working out but is also linked to faster reaction times during exercise.

The study, led by Dr. Joe Costello from the University of Portsmouth's School of Sport, Health & Exercise Science (SHES), utilized a sophisticated positron emission tomography (PET) scanner to measure dopamine release in the brain. The results indicated that when participants cycled lying down in the machine, there was a significant increase in dopamine release, and this process was linked with improved reaction time.

The implications of this discovery extend beyond the realm of exercise. Dopamine plays a crucial role in various health conditions, including Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, ADHD, addiction, and depression. Dr. Costello suggests that these findings could pave the way for a new therapeutic pathway for cognitive health.

“We know cardiovascular exercise improves cognitive performance, but the exact mechanisms behind this process have not been rigorously investigated in humans until now.” said Dr. Costello, “Using novel brain imaging techniques, we were able to examine the role dopamine plays in boosting brain function during exercise, and the results are really promising. Our current study suggests the hormone is an important neuromodulator for improved reaction time.”

The study involved three experiments with a total of 52 male participants. The first experiment monitored dopamine movement in the brain while individuals performed cognitive tasks at rest and during cycling in the PET scanner. The second experiment tested the impact of forced muscle movement through electrical stimulation on cognitive performance, while the third combined both voluntary and involuntary exercise.

Results showed that cognitive performance improved when voluntary exercise was performed, highlighting the importance of central brain signals in the process. Soichi Ando, Associate Professor in the Health & Sports Science Laboratory at the University of Electro-Communications in Japan, explained, “This suggests that when we tell our central command to move our body during a workout, that’s the process which helps the dopamine release in the brain.”

The study, published in The Journal of Physiology, emphasizes the need for further research to fully understand the link between dopamine release and cognitive performance after exercise. The authors acknowledge limitations in the sample size and recommend larger and more diverse participant pools for future experiments.

This collaborative study involved researchers from the University of Portsmouth, University of Chichester, University of Electro-Communications, Tohoku University, Meiji Yasuda Life Foundation of Health and Welfare, Setsunan University, University Sultan Zainal Abidin, and Da-Yeh University.

These findings contribute to the growing body of evidence supporting exercise as a viable therapy for various health conditions, opening new avenues for understanding the intricate relationship between brain function, hormones, and physical activity.

Author: Alissa Zorn

Title: Trauma-Informed Coach

Expertise: childhood emotional neglect, perfectionism, parenting, journaling, comics, doodling, coaching

Alissa Zorn is the founder of She's a trauma-informed coach and cartoonist passionate about helping people overcome perfectionism and shame to build authentic, joyful lives. Alissa has been featured on the Good Men Project, Wealth of Geeks, Motherly, and more.