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Pumping iron gives monkeys nerves of steel

Embargoed until: Publicly released:
Peer-reviewed: This work was reviewed and scrutinised by relevant independent experts.

Experimental study: At least one thing in the experiment was changed to see if it had an impact on the subjects (often people or animals) – eg: changing the amount of time mice spend on an exercise wheel to find out what impact it has on weight loss.

Animals: This is a study based on research on whole animals.

Researchers from the UK have tested the impact of weight training on the nervous system in monkeys. The team trained monkeys to pull a weighted handle with one arm, with the weight gradually increasing over twelve weeks. Each day, the scientists tested the nerve signalling in the arms and spinal cord. Their findings suggest that the nerve signalling responsible for posture become more powerful during weight training. The researchers suggest that this signalling system could be the driving force behind increases in muscle strength, but further research would be needed to confirm these findings in humans.

Journal/conference: Journal of Neuroscience

Link to research (DOI): 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1923-19.2020

Organisation/s: Newcastle University, UK

Funder: This research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Reece Foundation

Media release

From: Society for Neuroscience

Gym-goers may get frustrated when they don’t see results from weightlifting right away, but their efforts are not in vain: the first few weeks of training strengthen the nervous system, not muscles. New research published in JNeurosci reveals how.

The brain orchestrates movement via two major neural highways descending to the spinal cord: the corticospinal tract (CST) and reticulospinal tract (RST). The CST is thought to be the dominant pathway, with the RST controlling posture. However, the CST does not change during strength training, so increased strength must stem from the more primitive RST.

Glover and Baker trained monkeys to pull a weighted handle using one arm, with the weight gradually increasing over twelve weeks. Each day, the scientists stimulated the motor cortex and the two motor tracts, measuring the resulting electrical activity in the arm muscles. Over the course of the training regimen, the electrical response from stimulating the cortex and RST increased — a sign of strengthened signaling. After three more months of strength training, stimulating the RST elicited a greater response in the side of the spinal cord connected to the trained arm. Outputs from the reticulospinal tract become more powerful during weight training and could be the driving force behind increases in strength.

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