Research findings in the last few years have opened up the real prospect that the physical actions involved in riding a bicycle, and in certain other forms of exercise, may alleviate the symptoms of the neurodegenerative condition known as Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is a chronic neurodegenerative condition that affects up to ten million people worldwide. The disease, which usually develops after the age of 50, is caused by abnormally low blood-levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter chemical that carries messages between the brain and nervous system to help control and coordinate body movements. The decline in dopamine levels arises from a gradual loss of nerve cells in a part of the brain stem known as the substantia nigra. Although the causes of this loss of brain cells are not currently known, it is thought to be triggered by a combination of genetic changes and environmental factors; such as exposure to toxins and brain injury.
People with Parkinson’s disease will typically experience reduced motor control, with physical symptoms including tremor, slowness of movement, rigidity, and loss of balance. The progressive disease is also characterised by non-motor symptoms, including dementia, and can make some people more vulnerable to serious and life-threatening infections. Whilst there is currently no cure for the condition, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and medication are the most commonly used treatments for managing the main symptoms of Parkinson’s, and sometimes brain surgery, to maintain a patient’s quality of life. Stem cell therapy is another area of research currently being explored for developing new treatments.
Forced cycling could combat symptoms
However, in 2003, a research scientist from the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, noticed that the physical symptoms of Parkinson’s appeared to improve in a friend who had participated in a tandem cycle ride to raise awareness of Parkinson’s. It seemed that there was a connection between forcing the patient to move their legs faster than they would have otherwise been able to unaided, and a subsequent improvement of symptoms
This observation has sparked several research efforts, which appear to confirm the possibility that cycling has a beneficial effect for patients with Parkinson’s disease. In a 2013 study published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., Cleveland Clinic researchers Erik Beall and colleagues presented brain imaging findings that showed that forced exercise on stationary exercise bicycles appeared to improve connections in areas of the brain associated with Parkinson’s. Moreover, forced exercise was shown to be more effective than drug treatment at improving disease symptoms. In a 2010 study, published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, Angela Ridgel et al. presented findings that suggest that forced exercise can also alleviate some of the cognitive problems associated with Parkinson’s.
On the horizon for Parkinson’s research
Although there are several unanswered questions regarding the intensity, type and frequency of exercise, and why not all patients respond in the same way to cycling, the overall picture emerging is that forced exercise, both passive and active, could be an effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease. The Cleveland Clinic researchers are now looking at the potential benefits of less intense exercise, such as swimming.
It seems that the general take-home message for Parkinson’s sufferers, and perhaps for sufferers of other motor disorders, is that movement may sometimes be the best therapy.
Credit: Peter North