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Groundbreaking discovery keeps Parkinson's disease at bay

[July 17, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

This could revolutionize non-pharmacological treatments for the disorder and could pave the way for new approaches to other diseases as well. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Scientists from leading Italian institutions have made a groundbreaking discovery in the field of neurology, which could offer fresh hope to those diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

A collaborative study, spearheaded by the Catholic University, Rome Campus and the A. Gemelli IRCCS Polyclinic Foundation, has found evidence suggesting that intensive exercise may slow the course of Parkinson's disease. This could revolutionize non-pharmacological treatments for the disorder and has the potential to pave the way for new approaches to other neurodegenerative diseases as well.


Published in the revered journal, Science Advances, the study, titled "Intensive exercise ameliorates motor and cognitive symptoms in experimental Parkinson's disease by restoring striatal synaptic plasticity," was a collaborative effort involving a multitude of distinguished research institutes.

These included the San Raffaele Telematic University Rome, CNR, TIGEM, University of Milan, and IRCCS San Raffaele, Rome. Their collective findings shed light on how exercise impacts brain plasticity, presenting a potential lifeline for Parkinson's patients.


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The research was made possible by financial support from a range of institutes, including the Fresco Parkinson Institute, New York University School of Medicine, The Marlene and Paolo Fresco Institute for Parkinson's and Movement Disorders, the Ministry of Health and MIUR. These funds were allocated as part of the PRIN 2017 call and CNR-MUR calls, two distinguished grants dedicated to promoting cutting-edge research.

"We have discovered a never observed mechanism, through which exercise performed in the early stages of the disease induces beneficial effects on movement control that may last over time even after training is suspended," noted the corresponding author, Full Professor of Neurology at the Catholic University and director of the UOC Neurology at the University Polyclinic A. Gemelli IRCCS, Paolo Calabresi. His optimism suggests the emergence of a promising new therapeutic direction, with non-drug treatments potentially accompanying current drug therapies.


Prior research has suggested a link between intensive physical activity and increased production of a critical growth factor, the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The current study builds on this foundation, demonstrating how exercise-induced BDNF production is instrumental in slowing Parkinson's progression.

Experimental plan. Schematic representation of the timeline of the experimental procedures and the organization of the experimental groups. Rats were injected with α-syn-PFFs or PBS at 2 to 3 months. Four weeks after the injection, rats were divided into two groups, sedentary and active. The active animals were enrolled in the treadmill protocol for 4 weeks. Sedentary rats were exposed to an experimental apparatus that was switched off. All experimental groups were then subjected to behavioral tests and used for immunofluorescence, electrophysiological, and other morphological experiments. IHC, immunohistochemistry. (CREDIT: Science Advances)

Using a treadmill training protocol, Drs. Gioia Marino and Federica Campanelli, the leading authors of the study, observed these beneficial effects in an animal model of early-stage Parkinson's disease. The four-week intensive exercise regimen yielded marked improvements in neuronal survival, brain plasticity, motor control, and visuospatial cognition.


The most substantial impact of the daily treadmill sessions was a reduction in the spread of pathological alpha-synuclein aggregates, the primary culprit behind Parkinson's disease. These harmful clusters progressively debilitate specific neurons in the brain, particularly within the substantia nigra pars compacta and the striatum, collectively referred to as the nigrostriatal pathway. This pathway is vital to motor control, and its degradation leads to the characteristic symptoms of Parkinson's.

Effects of treadmill on α-syn aggregates diffusion in SNpc and nigrostriatal neurodegeneration. (CREDIT: Science Advances)

The study presents compelling evidence that intensive physical activity may, in fact, protect these neurons. This is particularly notable since the neurotransmitter dopamine, produced by these neurons, is crucial for enabling a form of dopamine-dependent plasticity in the striatum's neurons. This plasticity, otherwise impaired by Parkinson's disease, is preserved in animals that undergo intensive exercise training, leading to improved motor control and visuospatial learning.


The study further elucidates the role of BDNF, whose levels are elevated during exercise, in facilitating the positive effects of physical activity. BDNF interacts with the NMDA receptor for glutamate, thereby enabling neurons in the striatum to respond more effectively to stimuli, and these beneficial effects extend well beyond the exercise period.

Analysis of the spine density on SPNs of PBS- and PFFs-induced sedentary and active rats. Representative images of Golgi-stained dendritic segments of a striatal SPN in the different experimental groups at lower (top) and higher (bottom) magnifications. Scale bars, 10 μm (top) and 5 μm (bottom). (CREDIT: Science Advances)

According to Professor Calabresi, this research is just the beginning. "Our research team is involved in a clinical trial to test whether intensive exercise can identify new markers to monitor the disease progression slowing in early-stage patients and the profile of the progression of the disease."

As Parkinson's disease features significant neuroinflammatory and neuroimmune components, especially in the early stages, further research will explore the role of glial cells in the disease. Glial cells are specialized cell groups that support neurons and their environment, and understanding their involvement could reveal the molecular and cellular mechanisms behind the observed benefits of exercise.


This pioneering research invites a new era of hope for those living with Parkinson's disease. The prospect of intensive exercise as a therapeutic aid is not only promising for the future of Parkinson's treatment but also for the broader field of neurology. By harnessing the transformative power of physical activity, we may yet unlock new doors to combating neurodegenerative diseases.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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