Faculty Profile - University of Houston
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Faculty Profile

J. Leigh LeasureJ. Leigh Leasure

Associate Professor
Department of Biology and Biochemistry
Research Division:
Cell and Molecular Biology (Joint/Adjunct)

Office: H231D
Contact: jlleasure@uh.edu - (713) 743-8616

Education: Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin

Brain on Exercise

My research is on neuroplasticity, which is the capacity of the brain to change itself. Far from being static, the brain is exquisitely capable of responding to even the subtlest changes in behavior or the environment. The brain-changing behavior that I am most interested in is exercise. It is well known that exercise is good for the heart and slims the waistline. But less well known is the fact that exercise is good for the brain. Laboratories all over the world have conducted studies in both humans and animal models that document the brain benefits of exercise. To put it simply, exercise is good for the brain because it causes the brain to change itself in ways that support optimal cognitive, emotional and physical function.

Exercise creates an environment within the brain that is very conducive to positive change. For example, an exercised brain has more blood vessels and higher levels of important chemicals called neurotrophins. Neurotrophins nurture and sustain the billions of neurons on the brain (in fact, theyve been called brain fertilizer). By increasing the availability of neurotrophins, exercise makes the brain a place where neurons can flourish. And when neurons flourish, cognition, memory and mood are optimized.

Excitingly, an exercised brain also has more cells. When it comes to brain cells, neurons get most of the attention. They are, after all, the basis for cognition and memory and mood and emotion and all of the other wonderful things that the brain can do. But neurons have a huge support team, which is comprised of blood vessels and glia. Glia are important brain cells that have long been known as the glue that holds the brain together. Together, glia and vessels provide structural, chemical and nutritive support to neurons.

Because it increases blood vessels and neurotrophins, exercise is a great way to protect the brain from injury and disease, as well as a way to help it recover. My laboratory is currently investigating the capacity of exercise to help the brain heal itself. We have 2 main projects. The first involves binge alcohol exposure, which damages highly plastic brain regions, such as the cortex and hippocampus. The other project involves irradiation of the developing brain, which happens when children are treated for brain tumors. Using rodent models of these 2 types of injuries, we are investigating cellular and vascular changes due to exercise, and how these changes could counteract damage and ultimately improve function.

  • Leasure JL & Neighbors C (2014) Impulsivity moderates the association between physical activity and alcohol consumption. Alcohol, 48(4):361-366.
  • Maynard ME & Leasure JL (2013) Exercise enhances hippocampal recovery following binge ethanol exposure. PLoS One, 8(9):e76644.
  • Rodgers SP, Trevino M, Zawaski JA, Gaber MW & Leasure JL (2013) Neurogenesis, exercise and cognitive late effects of pediatric radiotherapy. Neuroplasticity, 2013:698528.
  • Hawley DF, Morch K, Christie B & Leasure JL (2012) Differential response of hippocampal subregions to stress and learning. PLoS One, 7(12):e53126.
  • Hawley DF & Leasure JL (2012) Region-specific response of the hippocampus to chronic unpredictable stress. Hippocampus, 22:1338-1349.
  • Leasure JL & Nixon K (2010) Exercise neuroprotection in a rat model of binge alcohol consumption. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 34:404-414.
  • Leingärtner A, Thuret S, Kroll TT, Chou SJ, Leasure JL, Gage FH, O'Leary DD. (2007). Cortical area size dictates performance at modality-specific behaviors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(10):4153-8.