A recent study at the University of Illinois shows that exercise for Multiple Sclerosis patients not only makes the body fit, but significantly improves scores on cognitive function tests. The results of the study were strengthened when MRI scans showed that when exercise for MS patients was included as part of an overall disease management program, the highly fit patients showed less damage to the parts of the brain showing deterioration and more gray matter volume than similar less fit patients.

It seems that specifically, aerobic exercise for MS sufferers seemed to have a protective effect on regions of the brain that Multiple Sclerosis targets most often. The fittest patients perform better on tests and tasks that measure the brain’s ability process information faster.


Exercise for MS always a good idea, but more gray matter not an expected outcome


There are volumes of reports and studies’ showing that exercise for MS patients reduces fatigue and depression along with a multitude of other benefits. The increase in cognitive function is a new finding, and appears in a study published in the journal Brain Research. It involved 21 women that had relapsing-remitting Multiple Sclerosis. Their results were compared with tests done on 15 women of the same age and education level as a control group. The study looked at overall fitness, cognitive function, and structural changes in both groups. It was specifically designed to measure the effect of exercise for Multiple Sclerosis patients and involved riding a stationary bike until they felt exhausted. While riding, they breathed into a mask to measure oxygen volume consumption.


The tests and the results


The test wanted to measure the results after aerobic exercise for Multiple Sclerosis patients. The women took a variety of tests to measure cognitive functions like processing speed, and selective attention. For example, they were asked to write down in a minute the number of words they could think of beginning with a certain letter. This is the kind of testing that MS patients do not usually score well on.

Another analysis looked at MRI scans to detect brain damage. The results for the MRI scans was pretty much as expected in that the exercise for Multiple Sclerosis showed more damage in the less fit patients. The surprise was the results showing less damage and more gray matter in the more aerobically fit patients – as measured by VO2 max tests.

The aerobically fit patients had even fewer lesions and less inflammation than the less aerobically fit participants. That included both gray and white brain matter. The hypothesis is that aerobic exercise promotes the nerve growth factors in MS patients, thus increasing the volume of the gray matter and increasing the integrity of the white matter as well. Therefore, cognitive function improves.

For many years in decades past, patients were told that exercise for Multiple Sclerosis should be avoided because it would make their symptoms worse. That notion seems to have been turned on its head, so to speak.  It now seems that exercise for MS, especially if part of a controlled program to increase aerobic fitness, the body, and the brain will benefit.