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Study finds that resistance training can prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease

[July 4, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

In an era of medical marvels, an old-fashioned prescription has emerged as a promising weapon against Alzheimer's disease. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In an era of medical marvels, an old-fashioned prescription has emerged as a promising weapon against Alzheimer's disease, according to a recent study published in the renowned journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Regular physical exercise, particularly resistance training, has been identified as a practical, cost-effective therapy that can not only prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease but may also delay the manifestation of its debilitating symptoms.


Conducted by a team of dedicated Brazilian researchers associated with the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) and the University of São Paulo (USP), this groundbreaking study shatters the prevailing focus on high-intensity aerobic exercises as the primary means of combating Alzheimer's. Instead, it champions the benefits of resistance exercise, particularly for older adults and dementia patients who might struggle with strenuous aerobic routines.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) has long advocated for resistance training, given its ability to enhance balance, posture, and prevent falls, this study underscores its considerable potential as a strategy against Alzheimer's.


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Resistance training involves contracting specific muscles against an external force and is critical for increasing muscle mass, strength, and bone density. By promoting healthier body composition, improved functional capacity, and balance, it also aids in combating sarcopenia (muscle atrophy) and allows for easier performance of everyday tasks.

However, it is the observed neuroprotective benefits of resistance exercise that have catapulted it into the forefront of Alzheimer's research. UNIFESP’s Departments of Physiology and Psychobiology and the Department of Biochemistry at USP’s Institute of Chemistry (IQ-USP) conducted a series of intricate experiments featuring transgenic mice. These mice, through a mutation, accumulated beta-amyloid plaques in their brains—a common symptom of Alzheimer's disease that damages neurons and impairs synaptic connections.


For these tests, the mice were trained to ascend a 110 cm ladder at an incline of 80° with a 2 cm spacing between the rungs. To replicate the resistance experienced in human exercise, loads equivalent to 75%, 90%, and 100% of their body weight were attached to their tails. This unique experiment, funded by FAPESP, mirrored the type of resistance training frequently employed in fitness centers.

Experimental design. PBS: phosphate-buffered saline; PFA: paraformaldehyde. (CREDIT: Frontiers in Neuroscience)

The four-week training period culminated in the extraction of blood samples to measure plasma levels of corticosterone, a hormone akin to human cortisol. Elevated levels of this hormone, generally provoked by stress, have been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease. Impressively, the mice that underwent the resistance training showed normal hormone levels, on par with those found in a control group of mice without the beta-amyloid mutation. Further analysis revealed a significant decrease in the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brains of the exercised mice.


"This confirms that physical activity can reverse neuropathological alterations that cause clinical symptoms of the disease," asserted Henrique Correia Campos, the study's lead author, reflecting on the promising results.

Resistance exercise reduced the number Aβ plaques in the hippocampus of APP/PS1 mice. Representative photomicrographs (scale bar = 40 μm) showing Aβ plaques (arrows) in hippocampal sections of mice from CTRL (A), APP/PS1 (B), and APP/PS1 + RE. (CREDIT: Frontiers in Neuroscience)

But the benefits of resistance training weren't just reflected in physical and biochemical parameters. Observations of the animals' behavior revealed a considerable reduction in anxiety-related hyperlocomotion among the Alzheimer's phenotype mice. As Deidiane Elisa Ribeiro, co-first author of the article and a researcher at IQ-USP’s Neuroscience Laboratory, noted, "resistance exercise reduced hyperlocomotion to similar levels to the controls." This result is particularly relevant given that restlessness, agitation, and aimless wandering are often early symptoms of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.


"Resistance exercise is increasingly proving an effective strategy to avoid the appearance of symptoms of sporadic Alzheimer's [not directly caused by a single inherited genetic mutation], which is multifactorial and may be associated with aging, or to delay their emergence in familial Alzheimer's," added Beatriz Monteiro Longo, the study's last author and a professor of neurophysiology at UNIFESP. The research suggests that the anti-inflammatory action of resistance exercise may play a critical role in this effectiveness.

Resistance exercise increased the number and the recruitment of microglial cells around Aβ plaques in the hippocampus of APP/PS1 mice compared to CTRL or APP/PS1 sedentary animals. Representative photomicrographs (scale bar = 50 μm) of immunofluorescence of Aβ plaques (6-E10, green), microglia (Iba-1, red), and double-stained (6-E10, green + Iba-1, red) with nuclear marker (DAPI, blue) shown in hippocampal sections of mice from CTRL (A), APP/PS1 (B), or APP/PS1 + RE (C) groups, as indicated by arrows. (CREDIT: Frontiers in Neuroscience)

This study follows a comprehensive review of literature published in Frontiers in Neuroscience by the same UNIFESP group. The review compiled substantial clinical evidence highlighting the potential benefits of resistance training on cognitive dysfunction, memory deficits, and behavioral issues among Alzheimer's patients. Researchers concluded that resistance exercise could serve as an affordable alternative or adjunct therapy in the fight against Alzheimer's.


Contributions from researchers at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) and the Federal University of Ouro Preto (UFOP) in Brazil also added depth to this study. Reflecting on the far-reaching implications of the findings, Caroline Vieira Azevedo, first author of the review article and a graduate student at UNIFESP, underscored the societal impact of Alzheimer's, stating, "Alzheimer’s doesn’t only affect the patient. The entire family is affected, especially in low-income households."

Resistance exercise prevented the occurrence of behaviors presented by the transgenic mice such as the increase in total locomotion (A) and the decrease in the percentage of central crossings (B) of APP/PS1 mice in the open field test to CTRL levels. Values (median ± interquartile range) represent the number of total crossings (A) or the percentage of central crossings (B) of mice in the open field test. Kruskal-Wallis’ test followed by the Dunn’s post hoc, *p < 0.05, n = 13–15 animals/group. (CREDIT: Frontiers in Neuroscience)

Both the original study and the review article shed light on potential strategies for public policy creation to leverage these findings for a broader societal impact.

Azevedo elaborated on the profound economic implications of these findings, remarking, "Imagine the cost savings if the appearance of symptoms in older patients is deferred by ten years." Thus, it's clear that this research holds immense potential to shift paradigms in Alzheimer's prevention and care.


It serves as a clarion call for healthcare professionals and policy-makers alike to rethink our approach to Alzheimer's, laying the groundwork for a future where the simple act of resistance training could be a cornerstone of delaying and combating this debilitating disease.

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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