Repairing Multiple Sclerosis Brain Damage Through Running

OCTOBER 27, 2016
Caitlyn Fitzpatrick
neurology, multiple sclerosis, MS, exercise, running

This isn’t the first (or second, third, or even 100th) time you’ve heard about the benefits of running. Studies have already shown that running is good for your heart, weight management, and overall wellbeing. Now, Canadian researchers are optimistic about the possibility that running may also be beneficial for neurodegenerative disorders, such as multiple sclerosis.

The collaborative research team from The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa used animal models to examine how running impacts the brain. It turns out that exercise triggers production of a molecule that helps repair certain areas of the brain. The molecule released during running, called VGF nerve growth factor inducible, was found to “help to heal the protective coating that surrounds and insulates nerve fibers,” as described in a university news release.

Mice were genetically modified to have a small cerebellum – which controls balance and movement – so they had trouble walking. If left like this, the animals only lived 25 to 40 days. But if they were allowed to run freely on a wheel, the mice lived for over 12 months – which is around an average lifespan for them.

Mice that were given the opportunity to run developed better balance and gained more weight; however, if the wheel was removed, the benefits diminished and they died sooner. Therefore, consistency was a key component of the study.

“We saw that the existing neurons became better insulated and more stable. This means that the unhealthy neurons worked better and the previously damaged circuits in the brain became stronger and more functional,” explained lead author, Matias Alvarez-Saavedra, PhD.

But is VGF really to be credited with causing this process? VGF is just one of hundreds of molecules that is released during exercise, but it also triggers an anti-depressant effect – commonly referred to as “runner’s high.” When the researchers introduced VGF to the mice not given a running wheel, similar effects occurred as they did in the mice who ran, as explained in the journal Cell Reports.

“We are excited by this discovery and now plan to uncover the molecular pathway that is responsible for the observed benefits of VGF. What is clear is that VGF is important to kick-start healing in damaged areas of the brain,” said senior author, David Picketts, PhD, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa.

More evidence is needed to see if this research can eventually be translated into a multiple sclerosis treatment option, but the results are encouraging nonetheless.

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