Kelly asks Sabina about brain atrophies and whether going to the gym can make a positive impact.
Kelly: What is brain atrophy? It sounds scary.
Professor Sabina Brennan, Research psychologist: Yeah, it does sound scary, doesn’t it? So first of all I want to point out that severe decline in general cognitive function in MS is rare. Atrophy of any tissue means the loss of cells, so in brain tissue atrophy describes the loss of neurons and the connections between them. The pattern and the rate of progression of atrophy depends on the disease involved, but brain atrophy does and is seen in MS. Many diseases that cause atrophy are associated with progressive impairment in cognitive function, however, research suggests that the negative impact of brain atrophy and cognitive functions, like memory and attention, can be lessened by engaging in stimulating activities that build what scientists refer to as cognitive reserve.
Now, research shows that people with higher levels of cognitive reserve, when compared to people with low reserve, that they can sustain a higher degree of neural lesions before the appearance of first symptoms of cognitive decline. So essentially scientists theorise that individuals with higher cognitive reserve can activate more efficient and more flexible networks than individuals with low cognitive reserve. So in short, what this means is that individuals with high reserve, that they can actually recruit alternate networks in cases where there’s brain lesions or neurological disease. So, based on the factors associated with individuals who have high cognitive reserve, people with MS will benefit from getting physically active, staying socially engaged and challenging their brains.
Kelly: So, something like going to the gym, releasing more endorphins and things like that.
Professor Sabrina: Yeah, yeah. I mean activity, physical exercise, it’s associated, if it has direct impact on the structure and the function of your brain. So your brain is the biggest consumer of nutrients and oxygen, so by engaging in exercise that ensures that you’re giving it enough oxygen and nutrients to function at its best.
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Professor Sabina Brennan is co-director of the NEIL research program and professor at Trinity College Dublin’s Institute of Neuroscience. Her current research interests are in understanding differential decline in cognitive ageing, the early detection of cognitive decline.