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Exercise boosts brain health and improves Parkinson’s, imaging studies show

November 26, 2012
by Pamela Tabar, Associate Editor
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Adding to the brain’s gray matter volume and slowing the effects of degenerative neurological diseases may be as easy as riding a bicycle, according to research presented today at the 2012 Radiological Society of North America annual conference in Chicago.

In two separate presentations, researchers shared their studies on the effects of exercise on two of the most devastating brain-related diseases in those over age 50—Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at Cleveland Clinic have discovered a relationship between “forced-rate exercise” and improvements in the effects Parkinson’s disease. In the study, 26 patients with Parkinson’s disease exercised using a stationary bicycle three times a week for eight weeks. Some were asked to pedal at a comfortable rate on a standard exercise bicycle while others were forced to increase their pedal rate while riding a modified bicycle with a motor.

Using an imaging technology called Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fcMRI), researchers were able to study how different parts of the brain interacted with each other. The key, the study found, is forcing the patient to pedal faster and faster, which raises the blood oxygen levels and stimulates the brain’s motor cortex and thalamus.

Those in the study group who were forced to pedal at an aggressive rate showed more improvement in their Parkinson’s symptoms than those who pedaled at a slower pace, even four weeks after the exercise period had concluded, the researchers noted.

In another study, researchers at the University of California - Los Angeles (UCLA) examined how exercise affects the physical structure of the brain. The research included data from 876 people, with an average age of 78 and ranging in cognitive function from normal cognition to Alzheimer’s.

Using specialized radiology testing, researchers documented a strong correlation between a person’s energy output and the volume of gray matter in the sections of the brain needed for cognitive functions.

“Gray matter includes neurons that function in cognition and higher-order cognitive processes,” said Cyrus Raji, MD, a radiology resident at UCLA and one of the researchers, in a statement. “The areas of the brain that benefitted from an active lifestyle are the ones that consume the most energy and are very sensitive to damage.”

Although any energy-consuming exercise can be beneficial, a variety of activities creates even better results through increased vascular health, Raji added.

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