Tomorrow's Health, Today's Research

Dr. Brian Christie

Professor, Division of Medical Sciences and Limited Term Professor, Biology Department
Member of the Brain Research Centre, at the University of British Columbia
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Phone: (250) 472-4244

Department Page
Research area: neurogenesis
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Research profile:

Execise reverses fetal alcohol syndrome

In case you needed one, here is another good reason to exercise: new brain cells.

Dr. Brian Christie has found that exercise can stimulate the growth of new adult brain cells, or neurons. In other words, exercise can make you smarter.

Christie, a neuroscientist, was one of the first researchers to discover that exercise promotes the birth of brain cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with learning and memory. He studies the mechanisms of how exercise can help ameliorate the effects of Alzheimer's disease, stroke, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Fragile X syndrome, and most recently, fetal alcohol syndrome.

Last year Christie published a paper describing how brain damage in rats with fetal alcohol syndrome can be completely reversed through exercise – results he calls “pretty darned exciting.” Christie joined UVic’s new Island Medical Program and the Division of Medical Sciences in the summer of 2007, and he has just submitted a paper following up on these dramatic results.

Rats are good models for human fetal alcohol syndrome. If pregnant rats drink, their babies show similar brain structure damage and cognitive deficiencies to human children. They are slow to learn and have poor memories.

One standard test to measure this deficiency is to see how fast rats can swim their way through a water maze to find a platform and get out of the water. Over a course of a week, normal rats will learn the maze and get faster at finding the platform. Rats with fetal alcohol syndrome are terrible at this task.

But Christie found that if he submitted the rats to exercise, they would improve to the point of being indistinguishable from other rats. There are several exciting aspects to this finding – for one, Christie used adult rats with fetal alcohol syndrome, implying that it is never too late to feel the effects of exercise.

Christie does not believe that exercise will be as dramatic a cure in humans given their relative brain complexity. Still, he believes daily exercise should be a key treatment. He points out that many schools discourage running around in an effort to keep kids from becoming overexcited, clearly a bad strategy given Christie’s work.

Christie is currently taking a closer look at the mechanisms that exercise activates in the brain. He uses a variety of techniques such as immunohistochemistry to look for new neural growth, changes to the number of synapses and the complexity of dendrites. He also delves into the molecular level to look for changes in protein expression in neurons.

The applications of his work are astonishingly wide. As Christie points out, the effects of exercise seem to reduce the impact of any stress on the brain – whether the stress comes from amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease, to just a hard day at work. Christie’s next step is to repeat the exercise studies in a rat model for Alzheimer’s disease.

He describes the brain as being in constant flux where neural growth can be ramped up or dampened. “We’re on the leading edge of showing that the brain is a dynamic structure,” he says.

It wasn’t long ago that neuroscientists thought adults could not produce new brain cells at all – you were born with a certain number which you slowly lost over your lifetime.

Christie was a key figure in overthrowing that paradigm in 2002, when he and collaborator Fred Gage at the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute proved that people continue to produce new functional brain cells as adults.