A joint team of neuroscience researchers from the Catholic University, Rome Campus, and A. Gemelli IRCCS Polyclinic Foundation have discovered that intensive exercise performed regularly and early into a diagnosis could slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. The findings, which are still in the animal testing phase, were published in the journal Science Advances.
According to the study, the team was able to identify a previously unknown mechanism that facilitates the survival of neurons and increases the plasticity of the brain, which can significantly slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. The data has the authors of the study hopeful that it may aid in the development of non-drug treatments for the debilitating condition.
Paolo Calabresi, Professor of Neurology at the Catholic University and Director of the UOC Neurology at the University Polyclinic A. Gemelli IRCCS, commented:
“We have discovered a never observed mechanism, through which exercise performed in the early stages of the disease induces beneficial effects on movement control that may last over time even after training is suspended.”
In order to find their evidence, the team examined previously found data that links intensive exercise to increased production of an important growth factor called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). They were able to replicate the data in tests that involved placing an animal model of early-stage Parkinson’s disease on a treadmill. The team demonstrated that overproduction of BDNF contributes to healthy physical activity of the brain.
As Parkinson’s disease progresses, substances known as pathological alpha-synuclein aggregates spread throughout the brain, causing gradual degradation of the neurons which control motor function. This in turn leads to the physical tics symptomatic of the illness. During the treadmill tests, the team determined that higher rates of BDNF production reduced the spread of the aggregates.
Not only did the team find the strenuous exercise could slow the degradation of neurons, but they also identified that the neurons became strengthened from the workout. The plasticity of the neurons was found to have been strengthened as well, meaning the subject could have greater protection beyond the exercise period.
Calabresi noted that more research must be conducted before they can move to human trials, but he was confident that their findings would serve as a model to help monitor the progression of the disease in its early stages. He wrote in the study:
“Our research team is involved in a clinical trial to test whether intensive exercise can identify new markers to monitor the disease progression slowing in early-stage patients and the profile of the progression of the disease… This will allow us to identify molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying the observed beneficial effects.”