Intensive Exercise Positively Impacts Parkinson’s Disease Progression Through Brain Plasticity, Study Finds

Intensive Exercise May Slow Progression of Parkinson’s Disease, Study Finds

Researchers from the Catholic University in Rome and the A. Gemelli IRCCS Polyclinic Foundation have discovered that intensive exercise could potentially decelerate the progression of Parkinson’s disease and have identified the biological mechanisms behind it. The findings of this study could open up new avenues for non-pharmacological treatment approaches for the disease.

The study, titled “Intensive exercise ameliorates motor and cognitive symptoms in experimental Parkinson’s disease by restoring striatal synaptic plasticity”, was published in the journal Science Advances. Previous research has shown that engaging in intense physical activity increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth factor that plays a crucial role in the positive effects of exercise. 

The research team was able to replicate this phenomenon in an animal model of early-stage Parkinson’s disease through a four-week treadmill training protocol. They demonstrated for the first time how BDNF is responsible for the beneficial effects of physical activity in the brain.

The study utilized a multidisciplinary approach, employing various techniques to measure improvements in neuronal survival, brain plasticity, motor control, and visuospatial cognition. The researchers observed that intensive exercise resulted in a reduced spread of pathological alpha-synuclein aggregates, which contribute to neuron dysfunction in Parkinson’s disease.

Furthermore, the neuroprotective effect of physical activity was associated with improved survival of dopamine-releasing neurons and the restoration of dopamine-dependent plasticity in striatal neurons. This, in turn, preserved motor control and visuospatial learning. The study also revealed that BDNF, which increases with exercise, interacts with the NMDA receptor for glutamate, enabling efficient neuronal response to stimuli.

Lead author Paolo Calabresi, a professor of neurology at the Catholic University and director of the UOC Neurology at the University Polyclinic A. Gemelli IRCCS, stated that the research team is currently involved in a clinical trial to determine whether intensive exercise can identify new markers for monitoring disease progression in early-stage Parkinson’s patients. The team also aims to investigate the involvement of glial cells, specialized cells that support neurons, to identify underlying mechanisms for the observed beneficial effects.

The discovery of this new mechanism and the potential development of non-drug treatments in combination with current therapies provide hope for individuals living with Parkinson’s disease. The study emphasizes the significant role that exercise can play in slowing the progression of the disease and improving motor control. Further research will continue to investigate and expand our understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved.

In conclusion, intensive exercise has been found to have lasting positive effects on motor control in Parkinson’s disease, even after training has ceased. By reducing the spread of pathological alpha-synuclein aggregates and increasing BDNF levels, exercise promotes brain plasticity and efficient neuronal response. This research provides a foundation for developing non-pharmacological treatment options and offers hope for individuals living with Parkinson’s disease.