WEDNESDAY, Feb. 24, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Exercise appears to protect the brains of people with multiple sclerosis, new study findings suggest.
Researchers assessed fitness, cognitive function and brain structural changes in 21 women with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS).
Patients who were classified as being highly fit performed much better on cognitive function tests than less-fit patients. MRI scans also showed that higher levels of fitness were associated with greater volume of gray matter, which is linked to vital brain processing skills, and less damage in parts of the brain where MS-related deterioration occurs.
"We found that aerobic fitness has a protective effect on parts of the brain that are most affected by multiple sclerosis," study lead author Ruchika Shaurya Prakash, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, said in a news release. "As a result, these fitter patients actually show better performance on tasks that measure processing speed."
The researchers also found that fitter MS patients showed less deterioration of brain white matter, which are fibers that connect gray matter areas.
The study findings were released online in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the journal Brain Research.
Previous research has shown that exercise promotes production of proteins called nerve growth factors, which play an important role in the growth and maintenance of neurons in the brain.
"Our hypothesis is that aerobic exercise enhances these nerve growth factors in MS patients, which increases the volume of the gray matter and increases the integrity of the white matter. As a result, there is an improvement in cognitive function," Prakash said.
"For a long time, MS patients were told not to exercise because there was a fear it could exacerbate their symptoms. But we're finding that if MS patients exercise in a controlled setting, it can actually help them with their cognitive function," she added.
The Multiple Sclerosis Society has more about exercise and MS.