If a pill could replace exercise's benefits, would it be worth it?

For sufferers of Alzheimer's, the answer is yes. But replacing movement with a pill is not the best option.

  • One of the most beneficial aspects of exercising is staving off dementia.
  • In both animals and humans, exercise plays a role in boosting memory.
  • A pill could be beneficial to people who are too frail to exercise.

Years ago a close friend was trying to quit smoking. He asked for advice. I offered a few yogic breathing exercises to help him maintain composure and focus, hoping that if he took the time to notice his relationship to breathing it would inspire him to stop. His reply: "No, I meant a pill."

A few years later he did quit and even tried the breathing exercises. But the promise of a pill is seductive. There's little that pills (and powders and liquids) stocked on supermarket shelves aren't advertised to cure. If you have a problem, there's a pill for it, somewhere. Even, as it turns out, exercise.

One of the great benefits of exercise is the proliferation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that Harvard professor John Ratey spends an entire book championing—he calls it “Miracle-Gro for the brain." BDNF not only supports the survival of existing neurons; it also promotes the growth of new ones.

Specifically, BDNF interacts in the basal forebrain, cortex, and hippocampus, regions responsible for memory, learning, and higher thinking. While the protein plays a role in other processes—in the kidneys and motor neurons, for example—it is especially important for the sustaining of long-term memory.

As Ratey writes, one of the most beneficial aspects of exercising is staving off diseases of dementia. A lack of movement is implicated in cognitive decline (among other problems), so it makes sense that getting your heart rate up and loading your bones with strength training would have positive mental benefits.

And so a widespread team of researchers, led by Harvard neurologist Rudolph Tanzi, decided to see if they could mimic these effects in memory-suffering mice. The results were published in Science.

While 30 million people worldwide currently suffer from Alzheimer's disease, that number is expected to grow to 100 million by 2050 if an effective intervention isn't discovered. While the mechanisms for this—brain inflammation, the loss of neurons, neurofibrillary tangles, and β-amyloid plaques—are understood, why they play a role in memory loss is not.

Recent evidence from postmortem human brains and mice implicate neurogenesis in memory loss as well. In both animals, exercise plays a role in delaying the disease through neurogenesis, which is in large part why moving your body is packaged with other lifestyle habits as a means for healthy aging.

To understand why neurogenesis is involved in dementia, Tanzi and team hindered the ability of mice to grow new neurons; it turns out their form of Alzheimer's is even more severe than in humans. Once the mice were in the throes of dementia, the team attempted to induce neurogenesis through pharmacological and genetic means.

Neither worked—they were miffed. Then the mice exercised, and hello BDNF. Neurogenesis commenced. The team then increased BDNF through pharmacological and genetic means and the same effects were observed.

The pill replaced exercise.

Neurologist Samuel Gandy brings up an important point regarding this research: for patients that are frail and immobile, a pharmaceutical that mimics exercise is quite useful. The exercising-mimicking pill can be a game-changer. This is science at its best.

At its worst, however, would be healthy people avoiding exercise and relying on a pill. Of course, memory is not the only benefit of exercise. We are complex animals that rely on system-wide best practices to both sustain and thrive. A strong memory isn't that useful in a weak or broken body.

For some, there is no choice—take the strong mind. But for most of us: exercise now. Making sure pills stay unnecessary is the best we can hope for. Interventions should only be by necessity.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.