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article imagePedaling restores brain connections for Parkinson's patients

By Kathleen Blanchard     Nov 26, 2012 in Health
Researchers studied patients with Parkinson’s disease recently to find the benefits of pedaling a stationary bicycle to improve motor skills. The study started when a researcher and a Parkinson's patient rode a tandem bike.
In 2003, Jay L. Alberts, Ph.D., neuroscientist at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute in Cleveland rode a tandem bicycle across Iowa to raise awareness of the disease. His partner was a patient with Parkinson’s disease. After the ride, the patient’s upper extremity tremors improved.
Alberts explained in a press release that he was pedaling faster than his companion, making her pedal even faster. The result, which Alberts says was “serendipitous”, led him to investigate how that happened.
For the study, Alberts and his team from the Cleveland Clinic looked at the impact of cycling on the brain among 26 Parkinson’s disease patients.
They used functional connectivity MRI (fcMRI) scans to study the brain's of patients with the disease who engaged in faster pedaling, discovering the activity restores brain connections associated with motor skills.
Chintan Shah, B.S., who co-authored the study said in a press release:
"By measuring changes in blood oxygenation levels in the brain, fcMRI allows us to look at the functional connectivity between different brain regions."
The patients engaged in bicycle exercise three times a week for 8-weeks. Some of the patients were given ‘forced rate’ exercise to make them pedal faster than those who went at their own pace.
"We developed an algorithm to control a motor on the bike and used a controller to sense the patient's rate of exertion and adjust the motor based on their input," Dr. Alberts said.
Brain scans were performed before and after the exercise sessions and then four weeks later.
The researchers were able to correlate faster pedaling with greater connectivity between the primary motor cortex and the posterior region of the brain's thalamus.
The scientists plan to study the effects on patients who have exercise bikes in their home and patients who swim, row, or perform other types of exercise.
The finding supports past studies showing exercise is good therapy for patients with the disease. Results of a Cochrane review, published January, 2010, showed treadmill walking improves overall function for patients with the neurological disorder.
Earlier this year, neurologists published findings that weight training also improves motor skills associated with the disease; recommending that progressive resistance exercises "could be considered an integral component of comprehensive [Parkinson's] disease management."
The progressive neurological disorder is characterized by a shuffling gait, tremors, poor balance and difficulty performing even simple activities of daily living like eating and dressing.
According to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation most cases occur after the age of 50. The disease affects 7 to 10 million people worldwide.
Shah said the study shows forced-rate exercise on a bicycle is a "low-cost" and effective therapy for Parkinson's disease. The researchers say faster pedaling might not be needed to see the positive changes in brain connectivity linked to pedaling.
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