Your Pupils May Reveal a Hidden Clue About Your Brain Function

The way your pupils react to light exercise can reveal whether you’re getting the cognitive boost associated with improved mood and improved executive function, one of the major benefits of movement.

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 trial, but the results showed that the more people’s pupils dilated during light exercise, in other words, the bigger cognitive boost they got.

“This finding supports our hypothesis that the pupil-related mechanism is a possible mechanism by which very light exercise enhances prefrontal cortex activation and executive function,” the team of neuroscientists and exercise scientists from the University of Tsukuba wrote in their paper published in August. Told 2023.

Although it seems like a strange link, it is now well established that exercise, even low-intensity exercise like yoga and walking, can boost our mood and help us perform a task. To accomplish this, it can help you concentrate better which involves the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

But the precise neural activity that exercise promotes this executive function is still poorly understood.

One way we get information about what’s going on inside our brain is through the eyes; Previous research has shown that our pupils may reflect deep neural activity.

To investigate further, 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 sit on an exercise machine. Told to rest.

Before, during, and after the workout period, participants were noninvasively monitored for their pupil size, and they were also asked about their mood.

A graphical summary summarizing the team’s findings. (Kuwaizu et al., neuroimage, 2022)

Both groups took an executive function test before and after the workout. This was called the Stroop Color Task and asked whether a word (for example red or green) matched the color in which it was displayed.

When this test was carried out, 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 this was related to increased activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area associated with executive function.

Interestingly, they also showed that the pupils of the exercise group dilated during exercise, while the pupils of those in the control group did not change in size.

And the more the participant’s pupils dilated during the workout, the better the boost in their cognitive function when tested at the end.

“These results strongly suggest that the increases in prefrontal executive function produced by very light exercise can be attributed to pupil-associated neural activity,” a press release reported.

“Looking ahead, pupil diameter holds promising potential as a new 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 that underlies pupil dilation is linked to the cognitive boost that comes from exercise.

Of course, this is just a small, preliminary study. The researchers noted that the results were limited to looking only at healthy young adults and an unbalanced group of men and women.

Follow-up studies are needed to make sure this effect is real. And then we can begin to understand what it means, and how we can benefit from it.

But it’s an interesting new insight into the connection between our brains and our eyes, as well as how exercise can change our brain function.

Research has been published in NeuroImage.

A version of this article was first published in August 2023.

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