Tag Archives: nervous system

Exercise and multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis(MS) is a degenerative inflammatory disease of the brain and spinal cord. It’s many symptoms, which include weakness, numbness, confusion, stiffness, and blurred vision, are due to the breakdown(demylination) of the myelin sheath, which is the important layer of insulation that surrounds part of our nerve cells. Our nervous system can’t function properly without this insulation. Similarly, an electronic device can’t function properly without plastic insulation around its wires. This insulation can also, in theory, help protect a person working with the wires, unless the person happens to be me(I still have tiny burn marks all over my fingers from years of tinkering).

The ultimate cause of this disease is unknown. What we do know is that the immune system is attacking the nervous system of MS patients(or the cells fail to produce myelin). It’s like your immune system consists of nothing but traitors, if you have MS. What causes the immune system to attack the nervous system is the big mystery. For reasons not yet understood, it is more common in women. Everything from viruses to toxins to lawyers are suspected of causing this disease, but so far research hasn’t discovered anything definitive.

While there is no cure for MS, there are a variety of drugs for controlling the symptoms. They may not work for everyone, but they can help many MS sufferers be more functional.

Which brings us to the question: Can exercise help treat or prevent MS? According to Sports Medicine(2008), Exercise and brain health–implications for multiple sclerosis: Part 1–neuronal growth factors:


The benefits of regular exercise to promote general health and reduce the risk of hypokinetic diseases associated with sedentary lifestyles are well recognized. Recent studies suggest that exercise may enhance neurobiological processes that promote brain health in aging and disease. A current frontier in the neurodegenerative disorder multiple sclerosis (MS) concerns the role of physical activity for promoting brain health through protective, regenerative and adaptive neural processes. Research on neuromodulation, raises the possibility that regular physical activity may mediate favourable changes in disease factors and symptoms associated with MS, in part through changes in neuroactive proteins. Insulin-like growth factor-I appears to act as a neuroprotective agent and studies indicate that exercise could promote this factor in MS. Neurotrophins, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor likely play roles in neuronal survival and activity-dependent plasticity. Physical activity has also been shown to up-regulate hippocampal BDNF, which may play a role in mood states, learning and memory to lessen the decline in cognitive function associated with MS. In addition, exercise may promote anti-oxidant defences and neurotrophic support that could attenuate CNS vulnerability to neuronal degeneration. Exercise exposure (preconditioning) may serve as a mechanism to enhance stress resistance and thereby may support neuronal survival under heightened stress conditions. Considering that axonal loss and cerebral atrophy occur early in the disease, exercise prescription in the acute stage could promote neuroprotection, neuroregeneration and neuroplasticity and reduce long-term disability. This review concludes with a proposed conceptual model to connect these promising links between exercise and brain health.


Department of Kinesiology, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602, USA. ljwhite@uga.edu

This sounds promising. It is already known that exercise can help release nerve growth factors that can benefit the brain and nervous system, so it makes sense that it could help prevent or treat a degenerative disease of the nervous system.

It’s amazing all the different chemicals released due to exercise – it is important to note that it also helps us maximize our own antioxidant defenses. Yes, that is correct, our bodies make their own antioxidants to deal with the effects of free radicals, so you don’t need to megadose with antioxidant pills after exercise. However, it’s still a good idea to eat food rich in antioxidants, since the phytochemicals and vitamins that have these antioxidant effects may have other beneficial effects.

Now the above study doesn’t mention anything about which exercises in particular are most beneficial for MS patients. I think it is safe to assume that walking or tai chi would be beneficial.

Is there any exercise that specifically targets the brain? Why juggling of course!

According to BBC News in their article, Juggling Increases Brain Power:

Complex tasks such as juggling produce significant changes to the structure of the brain, according to scientists at Oxford University.

In the journal, Nature Neuroscience, the scientists say they saw a 5% increase in white matter – the cabling network of the brain.

The people who took part in the study were trained for six weeks and had brain scans before and after.

Long term it could aid treatments for diseases like multiple sclerosis.

Toward the end of the article:

Clinical Applications

Dr Johansen-Berg said there were clinical applications for this work but there were a long way off.

She said: “Knowing that pathways in the brain can be enhanced may be significant in the long run in coming up with new treatments for neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, where these pathways become degraded.”

Professor Cathy Price, of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, said: “It’s extremely exciting to see evidence that training changes human white matter connections.

“This complements other work showing grey matter changes with training and motivates further work to understand the cellular mechanisms underlying these effects.”

As I understand it, an important component of the “white matter” in the brain is myelin, the nerve covering that slowly degenerates in MS sufferers.

It is early, but this is showing promise. Even if juggling can’t prevent this or other serious neurological diseases, I’ll still do it just because its such a fun exercise.

Parkinson’s Disease and physical activity

Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the central nervous system that slowly leads to almost total loss of motor function. At later stages, it can lead to dementia. The ultimate cause of this disease is not known, though genetics and exposure to toxins appears to play an important role. The proximate cause appears to be an accumulation of proteins in certain neurons, and lack of dopamine in the parts of the brain responsible for movement. “The discovery of dopamine deficiency in the parkinsonian brain” by Dr. O. Hornykiewicz gives a detailed account of how scientists unearthed the link between dopamine deficiency and Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is currently incurable, but it can be treated in its early stages by drugs and other interventions. As time goes by, and the disease progresses, these drugs become less effective. At more advanced stages, doctors may implant electrodes in the brain to provide “deep brain stimulation”, but not everyone responds well to such treatments.

Placement of an electrode into the brain. From Wikipedia.

Placement of an electrode into the brain. From Wikipedia.

There are of course other, less invasive ways to stimulate the brain to slow down the progression of the disease. According to research done by Rose MH, Løkkegaard A, Sonne-Holm S, Jensen BR, at the University of Copenhagen, high-intensity locomotor training can greatly improve Parkinson’s symptoms. Similar research conducted by Cakit BD, Saracoglu M, Genc H, Erdem HR, Inan L., at Ankara Education and Research Hospital, Turkey, show treadmill training can improve mobility in Parkinson’s patients, and reduce their fear of falling.

So it appears that regular exercise in the early stages of Parkinson’s can slow down the disease’s progression, with or without medication. David H. Blatt, M.D., who is himself a Parkinson’s sufferer and runs the website, Exerciseforparkinsons.com, recommends regular exercise to treat Parkinson’s, especially learning how to juggle. In his own words:

I believe that by practicing juggling I have substantially slowed the progression of my Parkinson’s disease. Juggling stimulates the brain – it forces the brain to quickly process complex, sensory input and then it forces the brain to direct muscles to move quickly in a complex, coordinated manner.

He has many inspiring videos on his website which demonstrate the benefits of his approach. Juggling and exercise may prevent other neurological conditions besides Parkinson’s, as my previous post demonstrated. I would love to see some studies to see if and how juggling helps Parkinson’s patients. As time goes by, the list of benefits of juggling and exercise in general continues to grow.