Mitochondria and Mental Health: The Powerhouse of The Self

Updated: Aug 22, 2018

By Hannah Taylor

Have you ever thought about going to the gym to destress? Recently, exercise has gained a new reputation as a tool to improve mental health. Research from different fields - immunology, physiology, and psychology - offer distinct explanations. Most notably, the runner’s high which is caused by endorphins has been given the most attention. However, Mikkelsen et al., present a different perspective in their review, “Exercise and mental health,” as they focus on the mitochondrion to ameliorate symptoms of depression and mood disorders.


A mitochondrion carries its own reputation, the powerhouse of the cell, which is emphasized in high school biology class. Suitably, it produces energy for cells through cellular respiration. Moreover, mitochondria play an integral role in regulating the nervous system, maintaining synaptic strength, resilience of neural circuits, and neuroplasticity.


Neuroplasticity is the process by which the brain’s synapses are altered in response to environmental, behavioral, or neural changes, like a highway project that may include plans to alter the highway in response to a sink hole, accommodate more cars, or repair cracks in the pavement. However, unlike a highway project, the process occurs at a much faster rate and can be influenced by physical exercise, mental exertion, stress, and diet to name a few factors. ATP molecules supply energy for neuroplasticity process similar to construction workers on the highway project. ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate and is released as a product of cellular respiration. In fact, as much as one third of all ATP in the brain is used to just maintain resting neurons. Since neurons need so many ATP molecules, the importance of the mitochondria in neuronal activities like neuroplasticity is realized.


Moreover, neuroplasticity is important in reversing and blocking damages in the brain caused by stress. This creates greater resiliency to adverse conditions and improves symptoms of depression and mood disorders. In the context of exercise, physical activity increases the population of mitochondria through a process called mitochondriogenesis. When there is a higher mitochondrion population, more ATP molecules are produced to aid in neuroplasticity activities, which can combat damages caused by stress, ultimately improving symptoms of depression and mood disorders.


It turns out it’s a good decision to hit the gym. Mikkelsen et al. address one of the most fundamental benefits to exercise – the neural health of your brain. Whether it be for improved cardiovascular fitness, destressing after your orgo exam, or better synaptic plasticity, research suggests exercise is a sound prescription.

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