Exercise classes that focus on boxing movements such as punching a bag may help to improve motor learning patterns in patients with Parkinson’s disease, according to a new pilot study.
When presented with a computerized test in which study participants with Parkinson’s disease had to press buttons corresponding to patterns appearing on a screen, those who had been takingclasses for at least 6 months demonstrated faster reaction time than did those who had never taken the classes, according to Christopher K. McLeod, a second-year medical student at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury, N.Y. Mr. McLeod, who worked with , director of the Parkinson’s Disease Treatment Center at the college, will present his research findings Oct. 20 at the International Conference on Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders in New York.
While the results were not statistically significant, and the number of participants (n = 28) was relatively small, said Mr. McLeod, “We think this is a good pilot study for research going forward, since there really isn’t anything in the literature right now about how procedural memory and learning could be addressed from a therapeutic standpoint in Parkinson’s disease patients.” Procedural learning is a means of acquiring a new skill through repeating the task, like learning to drive a stick shift by doing it.
The investigators used a serial reaction time test to assess procedural memory in 14 patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease who had been regularly attending Rock Steady Boxing classes and in 14 patients who did not go to the classes. The test featured a computer screen with four squares that would light up and a box with four corresponding buttons to push as each square lit up. There were seven time blocks in which patients were presented with a series of 10 stimuli. The first pattern was random to get participants accustomed to the task. The second, third, fourth, and fifth blocks had the same sequence, to assess participants’ ability to learn the pattern and respond more quickly. The sixth block again had a random pattern to see if participants slowed down to learn the new pattern, and the seventh block repeated the familiar sequence from the second to fifth blocks.
Experienced boxers generally demonstrated faster reaction time than did nonboxers, the researchers found. Statistical analysis of the four learning blocks (blocks 2-5) revealed a moderate effect (P = .19), indicating that experienced boxers tended to react faster than nonboxers.
Diminished reaction time is a hallmark symptom of Parkinson’s disease, often resulting in patients having to give up the ability drive as the disease progresses, Mr. McLeod said: “Reaction time is something that could eventually lead to falling or not being able to drive, which are huge lifestyle changes that affect these patients emotionally and impact their quality of life.”
The researchers also observed a visible difference in how the two groups tended to respond to the random sequence following the repetitive blocks. Experienced boxers slowed slightly, with a 27.3-ms increase in reaction time, while nonboxers got faster, with a 93.5-ms decrease in reaction time. One possible explanation is that nonboxers simply got better at reacting to the stimuli over time without actually learning the repeated sequence, Mr. McLeod said.
Rock Steady Boxing was founded in Indianapolis by Scott Newman, a former county prosecutor who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 40 and experienced significant improvement in his health and agility by engaging in rigorous workouts, such as boxing. Dr. Leder became certified in Rock Steady Boxing andat the New York college in May 2016. The classes include group activities, games, and boxing exercises designed to improve patients’ physical and mental stamina.
Mr. McLeod and Dr. Leder reported no relevant financial disclosures.