New research on brain health and lower back pain

Medical Minutes

Improving brain health through exercise

A new study is suggesting a fascinating link between regular exercise and better brain health. Researchers looked at 10,125 Individuals with MRI brain scans and found that being physically active is related to increased size of brain areas important for memory and learning. The study revealed that those who regularly engaged in physical activities such as walking, running or sports had larger brain volumes in key areas.

This includes the gray matter, which helps with processing information, and the white matter, which connects different brain regions, as well as the hippocampus, important for memory. Exercise not only lowers the risk of dementia, but also helps in maintaining brain size, which is crucial as we age, according to the researchers.

“We found that even moderate levels of physical activity, such as taking fewer than 4,000 steps a day, can have a positive effect on brain health. This is much less than the often-suggested 10,000 steps, making it a more achievable goal for many people,” said study co-author Dr. David Merrill, who is with the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Brain Health Center, located at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, Los Angeles, California.

Study co-author Dr. Somayeh Meysami, an assistant professor of neurosciences at Saint John’s Cancer Institute and the Pacific Brain Health Center, said this new research links regular physical activity to larger brain volumes, suggesting neuroprotective benefits.

“This large sample study furthers our understanding of lifestyle factors in brain health and dementia prevention,” said Dr Meysami.

A Lancet Study in 2020 found about a dozen modifiable risk factors that decrease risk for Alzheimer’s disease, including physical activity. This work builds upon previous work by this group, linking caloric burn from leisure activities to improved brain structure.

“This study demonstrates the influence of exercise on brain health imaging and when added to other studies on the role of diet, stress reduction and social connection offer the proven benefits of drug-free modifiable factors in substantially reducing Alzheimer’s disease,” said George Perry, Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

A proactive approach to dealing with forgetfulness

Mental health experts recommend a variety of techniques to cope with changes in memory and mental skills. They include learning a new skill, following a daily routine and using memory tools such as calendars and notes. They also recommend staying involved in activities that can help both the mind and body. Volunteering in your community, at a school, or at your place of worship can be highly beneficial. Spending time with friends and family and getting enough sleep (generally seven to eight hours) each night. Exercising and eating a balanced diet are paramount.

Some older adults have a condition called mild cognitive impairment (MCI), meaning they have more memory or thinking problems than other people their age. People with MCI can usually take care of themselves and are able to carry out their day-to-day tasks. MCI may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but not everyone with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s.

Currently there are no drugs or lifestyle approaches that can prevent Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. In the meantime, generally leading a healthy lifestyle, including controlling high blood pressure, being physically active, and making healthy dietary choices, can help reduce your risk of many chronic health conditions and may help reduce your risk of dementia.

What is causing your lower back pain?

A new study may have cracked the mystery surrounding the cause of a specific type of back pain. Almost 40% of the adult population experiences low back pain due to degenerating disks in the spine, but medical science hasn’t understood exactly why the disks become painful. In a new study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Cedars-Sinai investigators point the way to an answer and possibly a step toward targeted treatment.

“We’ve identified for the first time particular cells that could be the key to understanding disk pain,” said senior study author Dmitriy Sheyn with Cedars-Sinai Health Center, Los Angeles, Calif. “Learning more about how these cells work could lead to the eventual discovery of new treatment options.”

The bones making up the spine are interspersed with jelly-filled spacers, known as intervertebral disks, that act as shock absorbers. Due to age, overuse or injury, the jelly starts to dry out and degenerate, but this doesn’t mean that the disk necessarily becomes painful.

“This is because the inner jelly-like layers of the disks contain no nerve endings,” said Sheyn, who is also an assistant professor of Orthopaedics, Surgery, and Biomedical Sciences at Cedars-Sinai. “But sometimes, when disks degenerate, nerve endings from the surrounding tissues invade the disk, and we believe this causes pain.”

Several cell types exist in this jelly-like layer, and when investigators compared cells from patients with pain-free degenerated discs and patients with disk-associated low back pain, they found that patients experiencing low back pain had greater numbers of a certain subtype of cell that might be involved in the onset of the pain.

Future treatments based on this new information might focus on reprogramming pain-associated intervertebral disk cells into healthy cells, or on adding healthy cells to painful disks to overwhelm the pain-associated cells.

Precisely targeting the ‘bad’ cell subtype or supplementing the ‘good’ cell subtype may provide useful strategies for treating disk-based low back pain, according to the researchers. This current study validated some knowledge in classical disk or pain biology and could be a step toward a targeted cell therapy that addresses the root causes of low back pain.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

Author Bio

Author photo

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

  • Email: