Exercise Increases Brain Power in People with Multiple Sclerosis
|James H. Rimmer, Ph.D., Director|
In some individuals with MS, a major side effect is reduced cognition. Finding ways to overcome or delay the loss in cognition is an important part of the research agenda involving people with MS. New research is offering some hope. A recent study in the journal, NeuroImage, reported that higher fitness levels were associated with faster behavioral performance and the ability to use other areas of the brain (referred to as cortical plasticity) to compensate for the loss in cognition associated with the inflammatory process linked to MS. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recruited 24 volunteer women diagnosed with the most common form of MS, relapsing-remitting, to participate in the study. The subjects performed a graded exercise test on a stationary bike to determine their cardiorespiratory fitness level and how it related to their cognitive function. After the test, subjects were divided into low- and high-fitness groups. Using sophisticated neuroimaging techniques, the researchers found that the group with the higher fitness levels had a faster reaction time or response rate to a memory task referred to as the Paced Visual Serial Addition Test (PVSAT). The researchers noted that the reason for this positive difference between the fit and unfit MS subjects was that the fit subjects had greater recruitment of nerve cells in the cerebral cortex -- the part of the brain needed for higher levels of cognition - which some experts believe is a way for the brain to compensate for the reduced processing speed associated with MS. The researchers concluded that:
- "Increases in aerobic fitness thus might be able to counter the neural deterioration associated with the disease resulting in a more flexible allocation of cortical [higher level brain function] resources during cognitive tasks in individuals with MS."
While this study is very promising, the results must still be considered 'emerging' until more research can be conducted with larger sample sizes. In the interim, it's a good idea for anyone with MS to begin an aerobic training program to help preserve cognitive function. Not only does aerobic exercise seem to improve cognition (i.e., memory and processing speed), it also has many other health benefits, including improvements in heart, muscle, and lung function and reducing secondary conditions such as fatigue and depression.
A personal note to people with MS
Sometimes people with MS think that exercise will increase their fatigue and they therefore elect not to exercise in order to preserve energy levels. On the contrary, the research literature seems to bear out that exercise can improve vigor and reduce fatigue levels. Recreation, fitness, and leisure are extremely important for maintaining your physical and psychological health. The 5 M's to good Health, Moving More Means More Mobility, couldn't be truer for keeping you engaged and connected with the world around you. Life requires a delicate balance of movement and non-movement (i.e., rest, sleep, meditation, and relaxation) and for each of us, that will depend on how we feel on any given day. First and foremost, listen to your body and do what feels right and doesn't cause you to overexert yourself. Because your condition and how you're feeling will vary at certain times in your life, make sure you understand what amount and type of physical activity work best for you. Give us a call at 800-900-8086 if you would like some help selecting the exercise program that best meets your needs.