The potential of exercise or environmental enrichment to prevent or reverse age-related cognitive decline in rats has been widely investigated. The data suggest that the efficacy of these interventions as neuroprotectants may depend upon the duration and nature of the protocols and age of onset. Investigations of the mechanisms underlying these neuroprotective strategies indicate a potential role for the neurotrophin family of proteins, including nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). In this study, we have assessed the effects of 8 months of forced exercise, begun in middle-age, on the expression of long-term potentiation (LTP) and on spatial learning in the Morris water maze in aged Wistar rats. We also assessed these measures in a cage control group and in a group of rats exposed to the stationary treadmill for the same duration as the exercised rats. Our data confirm an age-related decline in expression of LTP and in spatial learning concomitant with decreased expression of NGF and BDNF mRNA in dentate gyrus (DG). The age-related impairments in both plasticity and growth factor expression were prevented in the long-term exercised group and, surprisingly, the treadmill control group. Given the extensive handling that the treadmill control group received and their regular exposure to an environment outside the home cage, this group can be considered to have experienced environmentally enriched conditions when compared with the cage control group. Significant correlations were observed between both learning and LTP and the expression of NGF and BDNF mRNA in the dentate gyrus. We conclude that decreased expression of NGF and BDNF in the dentate gyrus of aged rats is associated with impaired LTP and spatial learning. We suggest that the reversal of these age-related impairments by enrichment and exercise may be linked with prevention of the age-related decline in expression of these growth factors and, furthermore, that enrichment is as efficacious as exercise in preventing this age-related decline. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.