Fathers' Exercise May Aid Babies' Brains, Mouse Study Finds

Mice born to fathers who exercised regularly before conception show brain gains.

Posted Apr 25, 2019

Putting soon-to-be mouse fathers on a six-week exercise regimen before procreating resulted in mice offspring with better brain structure and function than mice born from the sperm of an inactive father, according to a new study. These findings, “Intergenerational Transmission of the Positive Effects of Physical Exercise on Brain and Cognition,” were published April 22 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The images from this study are breathtaking:

 Patricia Tezano
Staining for neural stem cells expressing SOX2 (red) and GFAP (green) in the subgranular zone of the dentate granule cell layer of an adult male mouse hippocampus. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1816781116
Source: Patricia Tezano

This study is part of an effort by various research groups in Spain to better understand the impact that parental behaviors prior to conception may have on offspring.

Last year, another group of researchers from Germany (Benito et al., 2018) reported that physically active male mice passed on cognitive benefits to their offspring via a phenomenon that appeared to be mediated by altered expression of sperm RNA.

For the most recent study, the researchers in Spain started by giving long- and short-term memory tests to a large group of male mice. At this stage of the experiment, they had all of the “sedentary” male mice (none of whom had been given access to a running wheel) impregnate female mice. Then, they put some of these mice on a six-week cardio regimen of wheel running.

After six weeks, both the exercise and non-exercise control group of male mice were given the opportunity to mate with female mice again. The primary objective was to see if different litters of offspring from the same father before and after he’d participated in a six-week exercise regimen would display any differences in brain structure or cognition.

The researchers found that mice born just after the father had completed a six-week exercise regimen did better on memory tests than mice born to him when he was living a sedentary lifestyle. Conversely, progeny born to chronically sedentary fathers in the control group at the beginning and end of the study did not show any differences in their brain structure or function.

The authors explain the importance of these findings in their significance statement:

“We report here the inheritance of moderate exercise-induced paternal traits in offspring’s cognition, neurogenesis, and enhanced mitochondrial activity. These changes were accompanied by specific gene expression changes, including gene sets regulated by microRNAs, as potential mediating mechanisms. We have also demonstrated a direct transmission of the exercise-induced effects through the fathers’ sperm, thus showing that paternal physical activity is a direct factor driving offspring’s brain physiology and cognitive behavior."

The researchers also gave all the mouse fathers the same memory tests before and after an exercise intervention and found that male mice who had been running regularly on a wheel for six weeks scored higher than their inactive counterparts. A closer look showed that adult male mice who had exercised regularly for six weeks displayed an increased number of neurons in specific regions of the hippocampus. According to the researchers, this is more evidence that aerobic exercise can trigger neurogenesis (birth of new neurons) in adults. 

Source: luanateutzi/Shutterstock

Of course, because this research was conducted on mice, it would be reckless to assume that the same results would be replicated in a study on humans. Still, exercise is cost-free. Even if the preliminary results of this research on mice are debunked in the years ahead, you have nothing to lose and will reap countless other health benefits by making exercise a part of your daily routine. If nothing else, the latest findings that regular aerobic exercise may improve the quality of a father's sperm is just one more reason—and an additional source of motivation—to stay active and make healthier lifestyle choices if you're planning on becoming a dad.


Kerry R. McGreevy, Patricia Tezanos, Iria Ferreiro-Villar, Anna Pallé, Marta Moreno-Serrano, Anna Esteve-Codina, Ismael Lamas-Toranzo, Pablo Bermejo-Álvarez, Julia Fernández-Punzano, Alejandro Martín-Montalvo, Raquel Montalbán, Sacri R. Ferrón, Elizabeth J. Radford, Ángela Fontán-Lozano, and José Luis Trejo. "Intergenerational Transmission of the Positive Effects of Physical Exercise on Brain and Cognition." PNAS (First published: April 22, 2019) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1816781116

Eva Benito, Cemil Kerimoglu, Binu Ramachandran, Tonatiuh Pena-Centeno, Gaurav Jain, Roman Manuel Stilling, Rezaul Islam, Vincenzo Capece, Qihui Zhou, Dieter Edbauer, Camin Dean, André Fischer. "RNA-Dependent Intergenerational Inheritance of Enhanced Synaptic Plasticity after Environmental Enrichment" Cell Reports (First published: April 18, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2018.03.059

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