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Exercise and omegas: an inexpensive, accessible way to boost dopamine in the brain


Frédéric Calon, Professor, Faculty of Pharmacy, Laval University
Funded by Quebec Research Fund on Parkinson
Pilot Project Grant: $45,000

Scientific title: Can exercise and omega-3 fatty acids synergize to restore dopamine neurons in
Parkinson’s disease?

Magazines, talk shows and advertisements have long touted the beneficial effects for everyone of getting regular exercise and of consuming omega-3 fatty acids. Now researchers investigating Parkinson`s disease wonder if linking the two practices could produce a doubly effective weapon against the illness.

At Laval University, Professor Frédéric Calon and his collaborator, Professor Francesca Cicchetti, are testing the effects in animal models of Parkinson’s disease when they eat a diet high in omega-3s and regularly use an exercise wheel. Their goal is to determine whether the combination of both “treatments” can reverse the damage to brain cells that produce dopamine, a lack of which results in Parkinson`s disease.

Previously, Calon, who is a pharmacist and a biochemist, focused his research on ways to prevent Parkinson's disease. His new focus reflects the reality that by the time most people are diagnosed with Parkinson's, the neurons that regulate motor control are already damaged, and there is little dopamine left in their brain.

“What we want to do is reverse the damage, so that's why we want to see if exercise combined with omega-3 fatty acids could have some restorative effects,” says Calon.

Calon is collaborating with a U.S. researcher, Michael Zigmond, whose work has demonstrated that exercise does increase levels of dopamine in the brain. Calon also has some preliminary data indicating that giving animals omega-3s after they have been exposed to toxins that create Parkinson-like symptoms increases dopamine levels in their brains.

If the combination of the two therapies shows significant improvement in animal models, Calon hopes this partnership might contribute to inexpensive clinical trials in humans to test using omega-3s and exercise to improve the lives of people with Parkinson's disease.

“Omega-3 fatty acids and exercise are relatively cheap, and pretty much everyone can improve their diet and get some exercise,” says Calon. “It's not something that will cost the public health system millions of dollars.”

Because neither omega-3s nor exercise have adverse effects, there would be no harm in people trying the combined approach – especially once the results of his study point the way, he suggests.
Meanwhile, Calon recommends eating salmon, tuna and other fatty fish two to three times a week and, if needed, adding omega-3 supplements, something he is rigorous about doing himself. He also confesses to being less committed to exercise – something his work with Zigmond may change.