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If you give a mouse a wheel, it will run, and run, and run: between 4 to 6 miles every night, a marathon every few days. All that paw-pounding does good things for the creature’s brain — more blood flow, more neurons, better navigation and memory. And if you transfuse blood from that well-exercised mouse into a sedentary one, it will get the same brain-function boost as if the furry little layabout had put in all those miles itself.

By studying what happens to these mice, researchers at Stanford University have now found a single protein that seems to drive the cognitive benefits of regular exercise, benefits that scientists have long observed but only recently begun to understand. Called clusterin, it’s the latest molecule to be singled out in the race to map the complex web of chemical signals that turn time on a treadmill into time put back on your brain’s biological clock. The discovery, though preliminary, could pave the way for brain inflammation-taming treatments to slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

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