One of the now classic tenets of neuroscience is that the brain retains a substantial amount of structural and functional plasticity throughout adulthood and old age. Enriching experiences that stimulate physical and mental activity produce robust changes in subsequent behaviors, including learning and memory, that tap a wide range of neural systems. In this article, we review evidence for cognitive priming with physical and mental exercise through a memory systems lens and present brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) signaling as one candidate neural mechanism for experience-dependent modulation of learning and memory. We highlight our recent findings showing that priming with voluntary exercise or with spontaneous alternation, a working memory task, enhances new learning of hippocampus-sensitive place, or striatum-sensitive response tasks. Blocking BDNF signaling with infusions of a BDNF receptor inhibitor into hippocampus or striatum just before training on place or response tasks, respectively, abrogated the benefits of priming regardless of the type of priming experience. These results suggest that enhanced BDNF signaling during learning may itself produce the cognitive benefits afforded by prior physical or mental activity.
Keywords: BDNF; learning strategy; memory systems; plasticity; voluntary exercise.
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