NASHVILLE, TENN. – Physical activity appears to have profound rehabilitative effects – both physical and cognitive – upon patients with multiple sclerosis, but the body of evidence remains largely based on small, sometimes problematic studies, Alan Thompson, MD, said at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers.
There are compelling animal data that exercise promotes a number of beneficial neuronal changes that improve patient-reported outcomes, said, the Garfield Weston Professor of Clinical Neurology and Neurorehabilitation at University College London (England).
“A lot of animal work suggests that exercise can have a major impact on repair and recovery in neurons, synaptic signaling, dendritic branching, long-term potentiation,” and can beneficially affect inflammation and demyelination, he said. Besides the direct effect on nerves, exercise builds up muscle mass, strengthens connective tissue, improves movement, and reduces cardiovascular risk. “Exercise improves inactivity, but also may improve the underlying disease process,” he said. “The effect can be quite profound, and we are building a very good evidence base to support the use of exercise in MS.”
Unfortunately, the existing body of literature remains unimpressive, Dr. Thompson admitted. He compared research in physical activity to that of medicinal therapeutics. Disease-modifying therapeutics research is highly regulated, very well funded, adequately powered and replicated, and – once it shows positive results – receives substantial marketing and sales effort. “As a result, there can be a substantial impact on care.”
Research on rehabilitation and symptom management, with physical activity and other similar interventions, is not well funded, relies on diverse outcome measures, has small cohort numbers, and often is unreplicated. Even positive results “are just left to lie there,” he said. “Thus, it has a modest impact on care. I would like to see equal resources for both research areas.”
The recent surge in stroke rehabilitation is an excellent example of how academic focus can change practice for neurologic illness, he said. A 2017 research letter in Lancet Neurology described the current state of research on exercise in MS (). An accompanying editorial compared the MS literature to that in stroke ( ).
During 1990-2005, there were almost no clinical studies in rehabilitation for stroke, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, and MS. Around 2005, things began to change in stroke, with close to 60 publications in just 1 year. During 2010-2015, the pace of research accelerated dramatically. Researchers, clinicians, and patients began to see the immediate and long-term benefits of early poststroke rehabilitation. These interventions have now been encoded in practice guidelines and are a core part of clinical care, Dr. Thompson said.