Researchers from the Australian National University believe they have discovered something that could allow scientists to "bottle up" the benefits of exercise in pill form in the future, to help those suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
The ANU research set out to investigate what impact exercise has on the eyes and the central nervous system.
Associate Professor Riccardo Natoli, ANU's head of clear vision research, said the study identified unique molecular signals in the body that occur during exercise.
"We think that part of the benefit of exercise is actually a molecular message which is sent from your muscles to your central nervous system, including your eyes, to increase their ability to deal with stress," he said.
"So what we want to do is actually understand what that molecular message is, and then see if we can understand it."
Professor Natoli said the discovery of these molecular signals could allow scientists to develop a supplement that could be taken like a vitamin, to prescribe the molecular message of exercise to those who physically aren't able to do so.
"As we age, our ability to move and be able to get benefits of exercise is diminished. [With] conditions like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and age-related macular degeneration, if you lose your vision, it's really difficult to maintain a constant exercise regime," he said.
"Think of this as genetic supplementation ... [it's like] taking a pill to supplement some of the gene information that will be in ourselves travelling around that body, from muscles to our central nervous system."
The supplement could one day help slow down the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.
"We know that as we age, we lose neurons. So if we can allow that molecular message to be sent, then we can basically improve the neurons that survive," Professor Natoli said.
"There's a lot of evidence in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's about people's memory or motor co-ordination improving as a consequence of exercise."
If developed, the researchers said the pill would likely not be available to members of the general public and would only be for patients who have restricted movement that renders them unable to exercise at an intensity needed to reap the rewards.
The next step in the research is to understand how the molecular signals sent from the rest of the body when we exercise reach our brain and eyes.
"What we really want to understand at a molecular level is what is that signal, and if we are able to increase that, can we improve things? And if we can decrease that, does it make things worse?" Professor Natoli said.
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