The National Parkinson Foundation recently awarded Giselle Petzinger, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and Beth Fisher, PhD, associate professor in the division of biokinesiology and physical therapy, a $250,000 grant to further their research on the effect of exercise in Parkinson’s disease.

Petzinger and Fisher have been studying the effect of exercise on people with Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade. Their previous research has helped Parkinson’s experts understand that exercise is beneficial to Parkinson’s patients. And while there is now broad agreement that exercise helps Parkinson’s patients, it is not as clear what type of exercise is best for keeping the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, particularly cognitive issues, at bay.

The next phase of their research is to help answer this particular question, evaluating which exercises most benefit people with early cognitive impairment from Parkinson’s. Over the next three years, this research study will recruit more than 150 individuals with Parkinson’s disease to participate in a 12-week exercise program. Participants will be engaged in a skill-based exercise program, aerobic exercise, or a social contact group and will be examined for improved cognitive

function through behavioral testing and functional brain imaging.

Parkinson’s disease is a chronic and degenerative disease that is associated with cognitive impairment, progressive loss of motor control, leading to movement and balance disorders, tremors, and difficulty walking. Parkinson’s results from the loss of dopamine-producing nerve cells, critical modulators of cognitive and motor system circuits in the brain. It affects an estimated one

million Americans and is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s disease.

Earlier published studies from Petzinger and Fisher showed that Parkinson’s patients who walked on treadmills at high intensity improves walking and balance when compared with patients who did less

intensive exercises or none at all. They have also published a number of studies in animal models of Parkinson’s disease demonstrating the effects of exercise on neuroplasticity (brain change) at the molecular level.

— By Hope Hamashige