Physical exercise enhances cognitive flexibility as well as astrocytic and synaptic markers in the medial prefrontal cortex

PLoS One. 2015 May 4;10(5):e0124859. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0124859. eCollection 2015.


Physical exercise enhances a wide range of cognitive functions in humans. Running-induced cognitive enhancement has also been demonstrated in rodents but with a strong emphasis on tasks that require the hippocampus. Additionally, studies designed to identify mechanisms that underlie cognitive enhancement with physical exercise have focused on running-induced changes in neurons with little attention paid to such changes in astrocytes. To further our understanding of how the brain changes with physical exercise, we investigated whether running alters performance on cognitive tasks that require the prefrontal cortex and whether any such changes are associated with astrocytic, as well as neuronal, plasticity. We found that running enhances performance on cognitive tasks known to rely on the prefrontal cortex. By contrast, we found no such improvement on a cognitive task known to rely on the perirhinal cortex. Moreover, we found that running enhances synaptic, dendritic and astrocytic measures in several brain regions involved in cognition but that changes in the latter measures were more specific to brain regions associated with cognitive improvements. These findings suggest that physical exercise induces widespread plasticity in both neuronal and nonneuronal elements and that both types of changes may be involved in running-induced cognitive enhancement.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aquaporin 4 / metabolism
  • Astrocytes / metabolism*
  • Biomarkers / metabolism*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Dendritic Spines / metabolism
  • Male
  • Memory
  • Motor Activity
  • Physical Conditioning, Animal*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Synapses / metabolism*


  • Aquaporin 4
  • Biomarkers