How Neuroplasticity helps in Parkinson’s Disease

Through the science of Neuroplasticity, now it is known that the brain has the natural ability to form new neural pathways and connections in response to several external environmental factors. This discovery means that the brain is a plastic organ that can be retained and repaired by using techniques well-suited to a long-term degenerative disorder like Parkinson’s disease (PD). Using Neuroplasticity concepts, a PD fighter can improve his attention span, speed up the brain’s processing power and hence improve poor balance and other movement related PD symptoms.

A healthy individual’s motor performance is dependent on the interaction between automatic and cognitive control of movement. In the case of Parkinson’s, individual experiences diminished automatic and increased cognitive control of motor movements. This happens due to the early and preferential loss of Dopamine in the Dorsal Basal Ganglia, which contribute to cognitive and automatic components of an individual’s motor skill performance. It should be mentioned that the basal ganglia and its cortical connections play an essential role in procedural motor learning, which includes the acquisition as well as retention of automaticity.

Exercises and Neuroplasticity

In the last few years, it has been constantly observed that exercise improve motor performance, facilitating right cognitive and automatic control of movement. Additionally, exercise led benefits such as improved blood flow and immune system, may help to create the optimal environment for Neuroplasticity to repair the injured brain. This underlines exercise’s benefit to driving positive behavioral change in PD fighters.

Certain Exercise studies show that combining goal-based exercises with aerobic training has provided some evidence of restored Neuroplasticity (by repairing basal ganglia and its cortical connections), among PD patients. These exercises, with the right number of repetition, intensity, and challenge, lead to improvement in motor performance of individuals with mild to moderate symptoms through experience-dependent Neuroplasticity. The exercise-led benefits vary, depending on patient’s age, current cognition, and disease severity.

Physical Therapy and Neuroplasticity

Using the exercise approach, physical therapy helps PD patients with learning through instruction and feedback (reinforcement). Since therapists encourage PD fighters to perform beyond self-perceived capability, they become more cognitively aware of movements that were previously automatic and unconscious.

Just like Physical Therapy, Feedback in Speech-Language Therapy and Occupational Therapy challenges people beyond self-selected levels of perceived capability and enables individuals to become cognitively engaged with the learning of movements that were earlier automatic and unconscious.

Commonly Prescribed Exercises

  • Some exercise targeting both balance and gait (a person’s pattern of walking) can increase cognitive engagement by incorporating aspects of goal skill training. This explains why Tai Chi is a beneficial practice for many PD fighters. The Chinese martial art focuses on dynamic postural control through weight shifting to control center of gravity during movements.
  • Studies have shown that individuals with mild to moderate PD symptoms can improve gait performance using treadmill exercise.  
  • Reports have also shown that fast exercise (cycling) can increase plasma levels of the anti-inflammatory Interleukin 10 (IL10) in people with PD. This results in improved motor performance.
  • Another form of exercise that combines skill practice with cognitive engagement include dance. Couple dance like Argentine Tango employs cognitive engagement through coordinating with a partner and the cueing using the music and rhythm.
  • Studies also show that using boxing basics has helped PD patients record some improvements in terms of balance and gait. This could be understood as boxing includes dynamic balance activities and multi-directional movements against conventional exercise regimen that only focuses on balance practice.