Moderate, intermittent voluntary exercise in a model of Gulf War Illness improves cognitive and mood function with alleviation of activated microglia and astrocytes, and enhanced neurogenesis in the hippocampus.
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Persistent cognitive and mood impairments in Gulf War Illness (GWI) are associated with chronic neuroinflammation, typified by hypertrophied astrocytes, activated microglia, and increased proinflammatory mediators in the brain. Using a rat model, we investigated whether a simple lifestyle change such as moderate voluntary physical exercise would improve cognitive and mood function in GWI. Because veterans with GWI exhibit fatigue and post-exertional malaise, we employed an intermittent voluntary running exercise (RE) regimen, which prevented exercise-induced stress. The GWI rats were provided access to running wheels three days per week for 13weeks, commencing ten weeks after the exposure to GWI-related chemicals and stress (GWI-RE group). Groups of age-matched sedentary GWI rats (GWI-SED group) and nave rats were maintained parallelly. Interrogation of rats with behavioral tests after the 13-week RE regimen revealed improved hippocampus-dependent object location memory and pattern separation function and reduced anxiety-like behavior in the GWI-RE group compared to the GWI-SED group. Moreover, 13weeks of RE in GWI rats significantly reversed activated microglia with short and less ramified processes into non-inflammatory/antiinflammatory microglia with highly ramified processes and reduced the hypertrophy of astrocytes. Moreover, the production of new neurons in the hippocampus was enhanced when examined eight weeks after the commencement of RE. Notably, increased neurogenesis continued even after the cessation of RE. Collectively, the results suggest that even a moderate, intermittent physical exercise has the promise to improve brain function in veterans with GWI in association with suppression of neuroinflammation and enhancement of hippocampal neurogenesis.