RUNNER’S HIGH Brain Imaging Shows Release Of Endorphins In Brain
The B-Spot revealed in an imaging study the increased release of endorphins in certain areas of the athletes’ brains during a two-hour jogging session.
This was first demonstrated in 2008 and shared on Science Daily with the results of the study ” The Runner’s High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain” published in the journal ‘Cerebral Cortex’. This research was supported by the German Research Association, as well as the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the German Association of Neuropathic Pain.
Runner’s High in the B-Spot
The runner’s high that accompanies jogging has positive effects on the senses and the most popular theory was and still is the ‘Endorphin Hypothesis’, which claimed that there was increased production of the body’s own opioids in the b-spot.
The myth of ‘runner’s high through endorphins’ lived on because throughout the world, amateurs, experts and the media agree that prolonged jogging raises people’s spirits. Finally researchers from the fields of Nuclear Medicine, Neurology and Anaesthesia at the Technische Universität München (TUM) and the University of Bonn succeeded in demonstrating the existence of an ‘endorphin driven runner’s high’.
Runner’s High Endorphin Hypothesis Confirmed
Scientists have now subjected the runner’s high endorphin theory to closer scrutiny.
Humans experience a massive spike in an endocanabinoid known as anandamide after a brisk run. The runners high is something most athletes experience at one point or another. It’s a rush of pleasurable endorphins released by the reward center of the b-spot. This response is triggered by a part of the brain known as the endocannabinoid system. The runners high allows people to surpass their normal physical limits by suppressing feelings of pain and sometimes causing feelings of happiness and euphoria.
‘We could validate for the first time an endorphin driven runner’s high and identify the affected brain areas’, states Professor Henning Boecker, who coordinated the research at TUM and who is now in charge of the ‘Functional Neuroimaging Group’ at the Dept. of Radiology, University Hospital Bonn.
Ten athletes were scanned before and after a two-hour long-distance run using an imaging technique called positron emission tomography (PET). For this they used the radioactive substance [18F]diprenorphine ([18F]FDPN), which binds to the opiate receptors in the brain and hence competes with endorphins.
‘The more endorphins are produced in the athlete’s brain, the more opiate receptors are blocked,’ says Boecker. And further: ‘Respectively the opioid receptor binding of the [18F]FDPN decreases, since there is a direct competition between endorphins in the brain and the injected ligand’.
By comparing the images before and after two hours of long distance running the study could demonstrate a significantly decreased binding of the [18F]FDPN-ligand. This is a strong argument in favor of an increased production of the body’s own opioids while doing long-distance running. ‘It’s interesting to see that the affected brain areas were preferentially located in prefrontal and limbic brain regions which are known to play a key role in emotional processing. Moreover, we observed a significant increase of the euphoria and happiness ratings compared to the ratings before the running exercise.’ states Boecker.
Professor Thomas Tölle, who for several years has been head of a research group called ‘Functional Imaging of Pain’ at TU Munich, adds: ‘Our evaluations show that the more intensively the high is experienced, the lower the binding of [18F]FDPN was in the PET scan. And this means that the ratings of euphoria and happiness correlated directly with the release of the endorphins.’
Running down the pain?
It is well known that endorphins facilitate the body’s own pain suppression by influencing the way the body passes on pain and processes it in the nervous system and the b-spot. The increased production of endorphins resulting from long-distance running could also serve as the body’s own pain-killer, a potent potential therapeutic option. ‘Now we are very curious about the results of an imaging study using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging which we are currently carrying out in Bonn in order to investigate the influence of long-distance running on the processing of pain directly,’ Professor Boecker says.
In addition, this has clear implications for those who suffer from chronic pain. ‘The fact that the endorphins are also released in areas of the brain that are at the center of the suppression of pain was not quite unexpected, but even this proof was missing. Now we hope that these images will also impress our pain patients and will motivate them to take up sports training within their available limits,’ Tölle concluded.
Further research is required so as to investigate the exact effects on depression and states of anxiety but also on possible aspects which may promote addiction. That is why the relation between genetic disposition and opiate receptor distribution in the brain is being currently investigated at TU Munich. ‘A scary thought,’ Thomas Tölle comments, ‘if we ran because our genes wanted us to do so.’ The first step towards researching these connections has now been made.
Keywords: runner’s high, opioids, brain, b spot, brain research, endorphins, endocanabinoid, anandamide, happiness, euphoria