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Exercise Helps Slow Parkinson's Disease

Regular Exercise Triggers Important Brain-Preserving Proteins
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Simulating Parkinson's Disease continued...

Animals that exercised their free limb lost significantly fewer brain cells that contain dopamine-- just 6% of these brain cells. Another group of rats that also received the toxin but were not forced to exercise lost 87% of their brain cells. Parkinson's disease is caused by the destruction of dopamine-producing brain cells.

Two days after the toxin was given, the "exercised" rats still had brain cells that appeared healthy.

Previous research has shown a similar pattern -- that people who lead active lives, who exercise and walk every day, are less likely to get degenerative brain disorders like Parkinson's disease, Zigmond says.

In fact, just last month two studies showed that exercise helps prevent or delay onset of Alzheimer's disease, which also involves brain cell death, Zigmond tells WebMD. Those studies showed that "the more active you are, the older you were when you developed it, and the less severe it was."

Studies have also shown that exercise stimulates production of key proteins -- specifically a nerve growth factor called GDNF that is important for survival of brain cells, he explains.

"Exercise increases concentrations of growth factors that reduce the rate at which nerve cells die," Zigmond explains. "We've known that these growth factors are very important during a child's early years. But now we realize that they can become important again in adulthood."

Several small pilot studies are under way involving patients diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, he says. Researchers plan to enroll 20 patients in a 60-minute exercise program that meets three times a week.

Preventing, Slowing Parkinson's Disease May Be Possible

Zigmond's study is "exciting, very interesting," Spyridon Papapetropoulos, MD, PhD, visiting professor of neurology at the University of Miami School of Medicine, tells WebMD. "All our efforts up to now have been in preventing further degeneration of these nerve cells or restoring brain cells with embryonic stem cells. If exercise can prevent loss, that's very exciting."

However, he advises against getting overly excited about the research just yet. "It's too early to know whether this works in humans. By the time that Parkinson's disease is diagnosed, people have already lost 60% to 80% of their dopamine-producing neurons. One can speculate that if it's caught early enough, it's possible to salvage [brain cells] that have survived."

"It's an intriguing finding. ... We're all looking for interventions to prevent these degenerative diseases, and this growth factor GDEF has looked promising," Burton Scott, MD, professor of neurology at the Duke University Movement Disorders Center, tells WebMD. "But how to deliver this growth factor so it works in patients hasn't been determined. So far, those efforts have been unsuccessful. This study presents another avenue to explore."

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