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Saturday, 9 February, 2002, 00:42 GMT
'Brainpower' boosts lung patients
Patient being tested for lung disease
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is on the rise
A little exercise can provide good brain fodder for sufferers of chronic lung disease, researchers have found.

A team at Ohio State University say sufferers of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may have problems digesting new information due to the lack of oxygen getting through to their brain.

But exercise - offering increased airflow to the lungs and the brain - can improve patients' intake of information, they say.

"Exercise seems to help these individuals think more efficiently," said Charles Emery, study co-author and professor of psychology at the university.

Woman on mountain bike
Exercise must be maintained, says Professor Emery

COPD, a combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema, leaves sufferers prone to respiratory infections, blocked airways and shortness of breath.

It is the fourth largest cause of death in the US and is set to reach that position across the world by 2020.

Professor Emery said that because of the reduced airflow in the lungs and therefore the brain, COPD sufferers tend to face problems with fluid intelligence - taking in and remembering data.

Researchers tested 58 adults - half of whom had COPD - to evaluate the effects of one session of moderately intense exercise.

The participants ranged in age from 56 to 85 - each was asked to ride a stationary bicycle for 20 minutes, with the level of resistance on the bike increased until the subject reached a peak.

The patient's heart and breathing rates were checked throughout the session.


Physical endurance decreases when a person stops exercising, and cognitive function likely follows a similar 'use it or lose it' pattern

Prof Emery

A week later all participants watched a video on the benefits of exercise and cholesterol reduction and were then tested on their thinking performance.

This looked at the type of brain functioning thought to be affected by exercise such as verbal processing, attention span, short-term memory and motor skills.

The COPD group revealed a marked improvement in verbal processing - how well they understood and retained information given verbally - after taking exercise.

Professor Emery said: "This translates to better performance on tasks like following directions, for example."

The same group did not improve in any other area of brain power.

The other 50% of participants with no COPD showed no improvement in cognitive thinking after exercise.

'Use it or lose it'

Professor Emery said doctors frequently recommend exercise to control symptoms of COPD.

In addition to increasing rates of breathing and blood flow, exercise appears to stimulate the nervous system and release hormones which influence how the brain functions, say the researchers.


If exercise can also bring about a cognitive benefit, to break the cycle of depression and despondency then clearly that is a good thing.

Dr Halpin, BTS

But Professor Emery warns the exercise cannot be taken in isolation as the effects are cumulative.

He said: "Physical endurance decreases when a person stops exercising, and cognitive function likely follows a similar 'use it or lose it' pattern."

Dr Michael Rudolf, chairman of the COPD consortium at the British Thoracic Society, said the research hints that there may be other benefits to exercise for COPD patients.

"There is an increasing amount of evidence that exercise and pulmonary rehabilitation programmes benefit sufferers," he said.

This was echoed by Dr David Halpin, also a member of the COPD consortium at the British Thoracic Society (BTS), who said the research served as a good "pointer".

"If exercise can also bring about a cognitive benefit, to break the cycle of depression and despondency then clearly that is a good thing."

But Dr Halpin, who is also a consultant chest physician and lecturer in respiratory medicine at the University of Exeter, said the research really served as "a hint".

"I would like to see further research but the fact that given the design of the experiment - the exercise was only very short - the researchers saw any change at all is significant," he said.

The research was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

See also:

22 Nov 01 | Health
'A sharp intake of breath'
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