The importance of exercising our bodies and minds

I’m reporting again from the American Academy of Neurology meeting in San Diego. A meeting like this involves a lot of sitting, so I try to start each morning with some exercise. Turns out that emerging evidence suggests that exercise doesn’t just help keep us physically fit, but also helps our brains function better; presentations this week on exercise, rehabilitation and quality of life issues suggest this holds true for people living with MS.

A small study from Society-supported scientists at the Kessler Foundation in New Jersey tested whether aerobic exercise – the kind that gets you breathing fast and your heart beat going – affects the brain. Using MRI scans and memory tests, they found hints that aerobic exercises done in 30-minute sessions, three times a week over three months improved memory and increased the volume of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved with memory and other functions. These preliminary results are intriguing and will hopefully encourage further studies that yield more definitive conclusions and maybe even recommendations.

Another study examined the potential of longer-term aerobic exercise to build endurance in people with MS. This study involved 60 people split into two groups: people with fatigue and people without. Both groups began individualized endurance (treadmill) exercise. After six months of exercise, both groups showed improved oxygen consumption, but those who started out with fatigue showed improvement in their fatigue scores, but it took at least nine months of the program to see a difference. So while you may not feel the effects at first, persistence can pay off!

Some very interesting data illustrating how the brain reorganizes to adapt to MS damage was presented by a research team from the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, Italy. This team looked at the impacts of a 12-week computer-assisted course that focused on training to increase memory and attention (the course was previously reported to improve attention and executive thinking abilities). Using functional MRI, which allows a real-time glimpse of the brain at work, they also found indicators that brain circuitry and activity had increased in specific areas. This improvement appeared to persist at least six months after the training was completed.

Researchers from Milan and from Kessler also reported that people with MS with more “brain reserve” (larger brain size) and more “cognitive reserve” (higher levels of cognitive leisure activities such as playing music, writing, dancing, or painting when they were in their 20’s) were at lower risk for cognitive changes associated with brain lesions. Even when brain size is accounted for, those with more cognitive reserve appear to have lower risk for cognitive changes. There’s nothing any of us can do about the size of our brains. But growing evidence suggests that people may be able to build cognitive reserve by engaging in enrichment activities (Words with Friends anyone?). It’s exciting to think that actions we can take, such as some mental and physical training, can actually alter brain circuits, improve brain activity and possibly help slow the progression of MS. What do you do to keep your body and mind active?

Summaries (abstracts) of the meeting can be viewed on the AAN Website.
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Bruce Bebo, PhD

Bruce Bebo, PhD, is Executive Vice President, Research at the National MS Society, and was previously a research immunologist focusing on the influence of sex hormones on MS. He is a driven and passionate Society volunteer, successful fundraiser and advocate, fueled in part by the fact that his mother had MS.