The benefits of exercise and learning new skills


Professor Julien Doyon, Department of Psychology, University of Montreal
Funded by Quebec Research Fund on Parkinson
Pilot Project Grant: $44,725

Scientific Title: Effects of aerobic exercise training with or without preferred rhythms on learning new motor skills in patients with Parkinson's disease

The conventional wisdom surrounding people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's is that they can't learn new motor skills after the death of a critical mass of their brain cells that produce the chemical dopamine.

Dopamine is the key chemical that helps cells initiate movement, and its loss results in the rigidity, tremors and slowness that are Parkinson's hallmarks. But what if something as simple as regular aerobic exercise could defy that conventional wisdom, and help people learn new movements?
At the University of Montreal, neuroscientist Julien Doyon uses brain imaging to investigate whether listening to music with rhythms they enjoy while exercising will enable people with Parkinson's to learn new motor skills, like a sequence of finger movements. He's also investigating whether listening to the same music later – even without exercising – will trigger the same regions of the brain that workouts affect.

In this pilot project study, Doyon and his colleagues will have 12 people with Parkinson's exercise three times a week on stationary bicycles, for 12 weeks. Six of those people will listen to music they have chosen to motivate themselves, and six will listen to calming background sounds. Before they begin their exercise regime, Doyon will use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan the participants' brains. He will then scan their brains after exercise and while they perform a series of finger movements in the scanner, to see which regions of the brain the combination of exercise and movement activates.

Finally, Doyon and his team will scan the participants' brains when they have stopped exercising, but are still listening to their preferred music or sounds. He wants to see if music alone activates the same areas of the brain that exercise and finger movements trigger.

“It's a kind of conditioning we are looking for,” Doyon explains, “an auditory cue that activates the same regions in the brain that would either help them to learn or would compensate through other brain systems.”

Researchers already know exercise can improve the cognitive functions and reduce the motor symptoms in people with Parkinson's disease. Until now, what they haven't known is how to make those improvements last. Using music as an auditory clue might improve people's quality of life by retaining the benefits of exercise, and it would defy conventional wisdom by showing that people with Parkinson's can learn new skills.