Exercise improves symptoms of Parkinson’s disease

By now, it is well understood that exercise is a vital component of a long and healthy life. When movement becomes more challenging with age or disease, exercise becomes less of a priority. However, recent research claims that exercise can improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that worsens over time. The main symptoms are tremor, rigidity, abnormal gait, and unstable posture. In short, movement becomes challenging, and eventually debilitating. This is due to the loss of neurons within the brain that secrete a signal (a neurotransmitter called dopamine) that is responsible for regulating movement. Sadly, symptoms only become obvious to the patient when up to 80% of these neurons have already disappeared, making treatment incredibly challenging.

The first line of treatment is often a drug called L-DOPA. This is a form of additional dopamine which can enter the brain and helps in ameliorating symptoms. However, as is the case with most drugs, side-effects are common, and eventually its effectiveness wears off.

Scientific findings indicate that exercise can reduce many of symptoms related to movement and reduce further loss of neurons. One recent study using rats highlights the positive impact of exercise on brain function. The rats were given lesions to one side of the brain, targeted to the dopamine producing neurons. The one-sided brain lesions generate a good model of abnormal movement for researchers to study, due to the resemblance to Parkinson’s disease in humans.

The results show that rats that were forced to run on a treadmill for four weeks improved walking speed and coordination. The group also found evidence for exercise improving dopamine signalling, which would not only help ameliorate the symptoms of poor movement, but also additional cognitive symptoms that commonly occur with the progression of the disease.

These are exciting findings, as they provide more insight into the mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease, and demonstrate a potential (additional) treatment of daily exercise.

Reference to the study: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-22462-y

About Danny Schnitzler

Danny Schnitzler is working as research assistant at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland on the role of oxytocin in feeding behaviour, while applying for PhD funding. Her scientific passion is neuroendocrinology, which looks at the role of hormones in the brain. In particular, she has an interest in how sex hormones act on neurophysiolgy. Outside of the lab, Danny is involved in addressing the gender imbalance in many aspects of STEM, public engagement and science communication. She also does "normal" fun things like going for runs, reading books and petting dogs.

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