Mental and physical exercise could help improve symptoms of young girls suffering from the devastating brain disorder Rett syndrome, tests on lab rats suggest.
A discovery by Melbourne brain scientists offers hope that enriching the environment of Rett patients could slow the progression of coordination and movement problems when used alongside drug therapy.
Professor Anthony Hannan from the Howard Florey Institute said the find was preliminary and still needed to be verified in humans but could one day bring relief to the children and their parents.
"This is a very severe disorder, both physically and mentally, so it's not as simple as just get these girls moving," Prof Hannan said.
"The idea is if you had a drug that showed enough improvement to get one of these girls out of their wheelchair and moving then the increased mental and physical activity could boost the drug's effect even more.
"That could dramatically reduce symptoms, and might even reverse them."
Rett syndrome is caused by a single gene mutation on the X chromosome, almost exclusively affecting girls who are normal at birth but undergo severe mental and physical regression after six months.
There are no effective treatments or cures for the disease.
The researchers bred mice with the mutation to test the impact of an enriched environment, which has already proven beneficial in people with Huntington's and Alzheimer's diseases.
Half of the Rett syndrome mice were given a range of mazes, toys and exercise equipment to stimulate them both mentally and physically.
"We found that the ones in a normal environment have very severe problems with their coordination and movement," Prof Hannan said.
"But the ones with enrichment were just like their litter mates without the mutation."
Interestingly, they also found that a special brain chemical called BDNF, which is usually low in Rett mice, was at a normal level in those whose environment had been "enriched".
The researchers hope the molecule and others yet to be discovered could become targets for drug therapies to use alongside the stimulation treatment.
"The next step is for us to look at the effects of environmental enrichment on anxiety and cognition in the mice, as these are common problems in Rett syndrome," he said.
Source: European Journal of Neuroscience.
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