The way your pupils react to light exercise can reveal whether you’re getting one of the main benefits of exercise, the cognitive boost associated with improved mood and improved executive function.
Researchers in Japan monitored pupil size in 24 participants during 10 minutes of light exercise and then used neuroimaging to see how the participants’ brains responded to a cognitive task.
It was only a small test, but the results showed that the more people’s pupils dilated during light exercise in other words, the bigger they got the better the cognitive boost they received .
“This finding supports our hypothesis that pupil-related mechanisms are a potential mechanism by which very light exercise improves prefrontal cortex activation and executive function,” explained the team of neuroscientists and exercise scientists. from the University of Tsukuba in their paper, published in August 2023.
Although this may seem like a strange link, it is now known that exercise, even low-intensity exercise such as yoga and walking, can boost our mood and help us focus better to complete a benefit in task that involves the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
But the exact neural activity that leads to this boost in executive function from exercise is still poorly understood.
One way to gain insight into what is going on inside our brain is through the eyes; previous research has shown that our pupils can show deeper neural activity.
To investigate further, the researchers recruited healthy young adults and asked half of them to participate in 10 minutes of very light exercise, and the other half to serve as a control group and simply rest on the exercise machine. .
Before, during, and after the exercise period, the pupil size was non-invasively monitored by the participants, and they were also asked about their mood.
Both groups took an executive function test before and after exercise. It was called the Stroop color task and it asked whether a word (red or green, for example) matched the color in which it was displayed.
While conducting this test, the team studied the participants’ prefrontal brain activity using functional near-infrared spectroscopy.
The results showed that light exercise made participants perform better on cognitive tasks than the control group, and it was associated with increased activity in the brain’s left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region associated with executive function. .
Interestingly, they also showed that the pupils of the exercise group dilated while they exercised, while the pupils of those in the control group did not change in size.
And the more the participants’ pupils dilated during the exercise, the better the boost in cognitive function when they took the final exam.
“These results strongly suggest that the enhancement of prefrontal executive function resulting from very light exercise may be linked to neural activity associated with the pupil,” explained a press release.
“Looking to the future, pupil diameter holds great potential as a novel biomarker that can be used to predict the effects of exercise on the brain.”
This is the first study to suggest that the part of the central nervous system underlying pupil dilation is related to the cognitive boost that comes from exercise.
Of course, it’s just a small, preliminary study. The researchers explained that the results were limited by only looking at healthy young people and an unbalanced group of men and women.
Follow-up studies are needed to confirm that this effect is real. And then we can start teasing out what that means, and how we can benefit from it.
But it’s a fascinating new insight into the relationship between our brain and our eyes as well as the way exercise can change our brain function.
The research was published in NeuroImage.
A version of this article was first published in August 2023.
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