The Exercise That Can Help Tame Schizophrenia

When you hear “schizophrenia” – you probably think of people who experience delusions and hallucinations. But that’s only one side of the illness.

Many who suffer from it also endure big changes in the way they process thoughts and solve problems. They become noticeably slower. “They tend to be the things that lead people with schizophrenia to go on disability and to become unable to work,” said Keith Nuechterlein, a professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour. “Families go through a stage almost like mourning because their loved one changes so dramatically.”

And while medications can significantly help with the delusions, they do little to help these other more profound changes.

That’s where brain games come in.

Studies have already shown that computer-based memory games have the ability to reverse a significant number of the brain-related problems for young people with schizophrenia. But now, UCLA researchers have shown how to turbo-charge those benefits.

Aerobics can make a big difference

“Exercising the body along with the mind has the potential to alter the course of schizophrenia, especially if the treatment is applied early in the disorder,” said Joe Ventura, a senior research psychologist at the Semel Institute.

The researchers treated 16 young adults who’d recently had their first schizophrenic episode. Nine took part in computerised problem-solving exercises only while the remaining seven did the same brain training, but also added four sessions a week of aerobics.

The results showed that taking part in 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week had a significant impact on their ability to solve problems. For example, they completed a complicated dot-to-dot drawing in an average time of 25-seconds, as opposed to 37-seconds for the others. (People of the same age without schizophrenia complete the assignment in an average of 22 seconds.)

The results were backed up by a second longer study.

Restoring connections in the brain

The researchers credit a brain protein which is released during aerobic exercise. The protein helps sprout neurons which then connect with each other. Many of those connections are otherwise deleted with schizophrenia.

“Our hope is to prevent the chronic disability that is so common in schizophrenia from ever occurring, and to return individuals with schizophrenia to regular employment, regular schooling and normal friendship patterns, and to have them resume as much of a full life as possible,” said Professor Nuechterlein. “This kind of computer training and exercise in combination with antipsychotic medication, might go a long way toward doing that.”