Wellness Research Shapes Up at MSPARIS2017

MSPARIS2017 is a remarkable event—it’s a spectacular gathering of thousands of professionals who are dedicated to the treatment and research of MS. I am especially encouraged by the growing number and diversity of presentations on an important topic: wellness strategies.

I saw a poster on the benefits of home stretching for leg spasticity (tightness). Surprisingly, there had not been many previous studies that showed benefits of stretching for spasticity in MS, or any other condition. However, many physical therapists teach stretching to treat spasticity. A study from the VA in Portland showed for the first time that one month of stretching effectively decreased the impact of spasticity on daily symptoms and activities. I was happy to see this first study showing the benefit of stretching and that a larger, follow-up study is planned. Details of the study are published and available for everyone (Abstract 899).

Exercise continues to show so many benefits for people with MS–and some of the most exciting research deals with how it can actually change the brain. I heard a presentation here from a team of researchers in France and Germany who looked at whether an individualized, supervised aerobic exercise program would improve “functional connectivity”–the connections between different areas of the brain that help the brain to function optimally. In this study of 57 people with relapsing-remitting MS, those who completed the exercise program showed improved fitness as well as improved connectivity after three months, particularly in “hub” regions. Much like airport “hubs,” hub regions of the brain are vital to integrating information within the brain (Abstract #234).

Overheating while exercising can trigger MS symptoms. So one New York team is exploring whether aspirin, which can lower body temperature, can help people with MS exercise longer. This was a small study of 12 people, but aspirin did lower body temperature and improve exercise performance in 8 people who reported being heat-sensitive during exercise. This needs more study, but it could be an important way to help all people affected by MS to experience the benefits of exercise (Abstract #P804).

One of the reasons I love hearing about new research on wellness and MS is that it deals with factors that are modifiable–in other words, changeable behaviors that might make life better. A team in New York City showed this beautifully in a report at MSParis17. They took 105 people with MS and found that imaging measures used to show the disease were related to general health and wellness factors, like sleep, cholesterol levels and heart rate. Larger studies that follow people over time are needed, but the data suggests that paying attention to these wellness factors–or living well with MS–plays some role in stopping disability progression (Abstract #P1001)

Speaking of modifiable risk factors, the one question I get asked about most would have to be, “what’s the best MS diet?”

The answer is being explored in several ongoing studies. For example, researchers at Johns Hopkins University presented interesting results from a study of calorie restriction diets. Keep in mind that these diets are carefully constructed so that calories are limited, but daily nutrition needs are met. After 8 weeks, the team saw significant changes not only in weight loss, but also in different molecules related to how our bodies process foods (metabolism). These molecules have relevance to immune and nervous system function, reflecting how what we eat can impact our whole body, not just our weight. Investigators are pursuing these studies with funding from the National MS Society and will study effects on gut bacteria as well, so stay tuned (Abstract #P1244).

Wellness and lifestyle strategies like these can provide people living with MS practical ways to control their health and wellbeing. These are the starting points for understanding how a wellness-centric lifestyle can impact symptoms and affect MS specifically. There’s a growing interest and activity in this kind of research that is needed to show that interventions are safe and beneficial–MSPARIS2017 definitely shows me that we are on the right track.

Check out other news from MSParis2017, the world’s largest MS meeting.
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Kathleen Zackowski

Dr. Kathleen Zackowski has conducted research on rehabilitation approaches for MS and other disorders for more than 15 years. She just joined the Society’s research team as senior director of patient management, care and rehabilitation research after working as a clinician and researcher at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is working to grow the Society’s research focused on clinical care and rehabilitation, and wellness strategies.