“We are carrying our research full circle and beginning to demonstrate some causality”
As Alzheimer’s becomes increasingly more prevalent, both in the US, and across the globe, finding out more about positive self-help strategies is essential. One of these is exercise. A well known pioneer of the latter, is the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine and Public Health’s assistant medical professor, Ozioma Okonkwo.
Together, Okonkwo and his colleagues, have spent close to ten years studying a specific group of middle-aged men and women who are at greater risk of developing the disease. Their extensive research has focused on whether or not there is a link between exercise and biological processes. Their recent findings indicate that: “improvements in aerobic fitness mitigated one of the physiological brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s: the slowing down of how neurons breakdown glucose”. This research was recently presented at the American Psychological Association’s yearly meeting, and will be published in due course.
Putting a Spotlight on the Research
There are 1,500 participants involved in Okonkwo’s research, all of whom are on the WRAP (Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention) registry. They are unique in that: “they are cognitively normal, but have genes that put them at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, or have one or two parents who have been diagnosed with the disease, or both”.
In his most recent study, Okonkwo recruited 23 participants from the register, none of whom were physically active. Eleven of these were asked to spend 6 months participating in an exercise program to ameliorate their aerobic fitness. And the remaining 12 subjects served as the control group. (A control group refers to subjects who do not participate in the program or treatment). All the participants were given brain scans in order to monitor any brain changes which are linked to Alzheimer’s. For example, the way in which their nerve cells metabolize glucose, since people with the disease experience slower glucose breakdown. When the research period concluded: “the group that exercised more showed higher levels of glucose metabolism and performed better on cognitive-function tests compared to the controls”.
Also, in a previous study, Okonkwo’s team determined that those with greater aerobic fitness had less hyperintensities (white matter). This reflects transformations within the brain which signal degeneration of the nerve cells. On MRI images, this white matter is seen as brighter spots. Moreover, in other research, the team: “identified a series of Alzheimer’s-related biological changes that seemed to be affected by exercise by comparing, retrospectively, people who were more physically active to those who were not”. During the trial, the scientists were able to demonstrate that the processes could actually be affected by an exercise protocol intervention.
Okonkwo’s study results and presentations are making excellent headway in this much needed area of research on how physical activity can transform the biological processes which drive Alzheimer’s. Moreover, his work: “may even reduce the effect of strong risk factors such as age and genes linked to higher risk of neurodegenerative disease” . Let’s hope so…