For people with MS, can exercise change the brain?

A new study looks at exercise as a potential treatment for people with relapsing-remitting MS. What’s different, and exciting, about this study is that it not only analyzed the impact of exercise on symptoms of the disease, it also assessed how the brain changed with exercise treatment.
As published in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal, researchers enrolled 35 patients with relapsing-remitting MS. Half began a 24-week program of twice-weekly supervised exercise, while the other half continued to see their doctors for routine care. At the end of 24 weeks, the assignments reversed (although the group assigned to start with exercise could continue unsupervised exercise). The exercise program included progressive resistance training such as free weights, elastic bands, or exercise machines with increasing resistance over time. After the exercise program, researchers evaluated each study volunteer with measures of function, disability, and brain MRI.
Here’s what they found after the period of exercise.
  • Measures of overall function improved while measures of disability did not change.
  • Overall MRI findings (including brain volume and damage from MS) did not change. Since MRI findings of MS damage tend to worsen over time, this could suggest that exercise might keep MS from worsening, or slow its progression.
  • Certain parts of the brain appeared to “thicken” by MRI (suggesting preservation of brain tissue or even regeneration). However, this was observed for only 19 of 74 brain areas examined.


Jay Boddu