Not only is physical activity beneficial for your own brain, it can also affect the learning ability of your future children. At least that’s what one study published in the journal Cell Reports has found recently, in studies of mice.
The belief that acquired skills do not modify DNA sequences and cannot be passed on to offspring has been prevalent in genetics for a long time. However, more recently, scientists have found circumstances that refute this belief. For instance, a poor diet, stress and even trauma have all been shown to pass effects onto offspring.
This phenomenon is called epigenetic inheritance, and while it is well known that physical activity helps us learn better and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s, this study found that in mice, learning ability is also passed down to the next generation.
When Professor Andre Fischer and his colleagues exposed the mice to a stimulating environment with plenty of room to exercise, their offspring also benefited. Compared to mice in the control group, the offspring of the well-exercised mice had better results on tests that evaluate learning ability and had improved synaptic plasticity. Synaptic plasticity measures how well nerves communicate and is the basis for learning.
It turns out, the inheritance of learning skills is passed through the sperm of the male mice which contains paternal DNA and RNA molecules (RNA is similar to DNA and is responsible for transferring some genetic codes required to create certain proteins). Specifically, the RNA molecules were extracted and injected into fertilized egg cells and the results showed it to be responsible for the effect on epigenetic inheritance in the mice.
"For the first time, our work specifically links an epigenetic phenomenon to certain microRNAs," says Fisher. The researchers also found that specific microRNA accumulates in the brain and the sperm of mice after physical and mental activity.
While this is all well and good for mice, it’s impossible to say whether learning ability can be inherited epigenetically in humans. However considering the known benefits that physical activity and cognitive training have on us, it can’t hurt to try.