That memory is stored as DNA-containing nuclei, which proliferate when a muscle is exercised. Contrary to previous thinking, those nuclei aren’t lost when muscles atrophy, researchers report online August 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The extra nuclei form a type of muscle memory that allows the muscle to bounce back quickly when retrained.
The findings suggest that exercise early in life could help fend off frailness in the elderly, and also raise questions about how long doping athletes should be banned from competition, says study leader Kristian Gundersen, a physiologist at the University of Oslo in Norway.
Muscle cells are huge, Gundersen says. And because the cells are so big, more than one nucleus is needed to supply the DNA templates for making large amounts of the proteins that give muscle its strength. Previous research has demonstrated that with exercise, muscle cells get even bigger by merging with stem cells called satellite cells, which are nestled between muscle fiber cells. Researchers had previously thought that when muscles atrophy, the extra nuclei are killed by a cell death program called apoptosis.