Physical exercise increases brain activity through mechanisms not yet known. We now report that in rats, running induces uptake of blood insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) by specific groups of neurons throughout the brain. Neurons accumulating IGF-I show increased spontaneous firing and a protracted increase in sensitivity to afferent stimulation. Furthermore, systemic injection of IGF-I mimicked the effects of exercise in the brain. Thus, brain uptake of IGF-I after either intracarotid injection or after exercise elicited the same pattern of neuronal accumulation of IGF-I, an identical widespread increase in neuronal c-Fos, and a similar stimulation of hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor. When uptake of IGF-I by brain cells was blocked, the exercise-induced increase on c-Fos expression was also blocked. We conclude that serum IGF-I mediates activational effects of exercise in the brain. Thus, stimulation of the uptake of blood-borne IGF-I by nerve cells may lead to novel neuroprotective strategies.