More Reasons to Keep Running

David Yon, September 26, 2022

Increasing evidence supports a link between vigorous physical activity and a healthier brain, with regular exercise helping to delay brain aging and, perhaps, reduce the impact of neurodegeneration on people. But the headline in the daily publication Parkinson’s News Today caught my attention (maybe because I recently reread the book Flowers for Algernon). It read: “Mice Show Gain From Exercise, Cholesterol Medication.”

The report began as follows: “Regular treadmill exercise significantly reduced the aggregation and spread of alpha-synuclein in the brain – a hallmark of Parkinson’s disease – prevented neurodegeneration, and lessened motor deficits in a mouse model of Parkinson’s ….

The Parkinson’s Foundation describes Parkinson’s Disease as a “neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominately the dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra.”  The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences adds that “neurodegenerative diseases occur when nerve cells in the brain or peripheral nervous system lose function over time and ultimately die. Although certain treatments may help relieve some of the physical or mental symptoms associated with neurodegenerative diseases, slowing their progression is not currently possible, and no cures exist.”

It is one of a number of neurodegenerative diseases associated with the abnormal, toxic accumulation and spread of aggregates of a protein called alpha-synuclein, commonly referred to as “bad protein,” in the brain and spinal cord.

As September gives way to October, I am finishing my 10th year of post diagnosis living with Parkinson’s.  It is certain the disease started its dirty work long before then. Regardless, most people (certainly I include myself in this group) want to know what is the worst thing that might happen, the most likely thing to happen and the best (how do I make it curable) thing possible.

Two of my early takeaways: (1) When you see one person with Parkinson’s, you have seen one person with Parkinson’s. The next case may follow the same pattern, the next maybe worse and the final one might be better, (2) While it is not curable, it is important to combine the best medicines with exercise and rest to help manage the disease and live the best quality of life.

So, when I saw the headline for the study referenced above  – Treadmill Exercise Reduces α-Synuclein Spreading via PPARα – I got pretty excited. As I read the study, the results supported a conclusion that regular treadmill exercise significantly reduced the aggregation and spread of alpha-synuclein in the brains of mice, prevented neurodegeneration, and lessened motor deficit.

The researchers in the study analyzed mice with alpha-synuclein aggregation due to injections given them at two months old. At four months the mice began exercising on the treadmill six days a week for two months. Sessions lasted 30 minutes and the pace gradually increased over the two months. That is a fraction of how much I run.

The mice in the training group showed a “significantly reduced loss of dopaminergic, or dopamine-producing, neurons, and of dopamine and its byproducts.”  “Treadmill training was also associated with a nearly complete reversal of motor deficits in these animals, further supporting its ability to reduce both molecular hallmarks of the disease and its clinical symptoms.”

I wasn’t the only person who got excited by these results. The authors of the paper wrote: “until now, no effective therapy has been available to prevent alpha-synuclein spreading in the human brain…Our hope is that we can use this as a jumping off point.”

The report went on to say: “These benefits were found to be associated with the activation of a receptor protein called peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPAR-alpha) in the brain. The receptor is known to activate genes that promote growth, maturation, and survival of dopaminergic neurons, which are progressively lost in Parkinson’s disease.

Certainly no one expects neurodegenerative diseases to be cured by working on a treadmill. Researchers hope a better understanding of what the treadmill exercises are doing can lead to treadmill associated drugs that can inhibit alpha-synuclein-associated-damage, protect the brain, and stop the growth of dementia associated with Parkinson’s and Lewy body disease. 

Personally, it confirms a strategy of aggressively using exercise to fight the progression of Parkinson’s Disease in my body. It offers a different kind of fight though – one where Parky can be pushed back rather than just slowed down.

Not everyone with Parkinson’s can run on a treadmill. And because of the challenges we all face due to Parky we need to find the safest ways possible to exercise. But almost everyone can use exercise in a way that improves their lives.  I hope to continue running, regardless of how slow. So Parky, let’s go for a run and see who wears out first.


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