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05-09 Exercising the brain and body to treat schizophrenia

Exercising the brain and body to treat 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.”

That’s the message from Keith Nuechterlein, Ph.D., who’s a professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and a researcher for the free schizophrenia clinic at UCLA. He and a team of fellow academic clinicians conducted two studies unearthing a pair of practical solutions to counteract schizophrenia onset that parents can implement now to help their teens.

The science of schizophrenia

In the formative years, humans organically grow and shed a certain amount of brain neuron connections. The brain naturally uninstalls unused and redundant synapses.

Nuechterlein explains schizophrenia is like a factory belt going haywire, disconnecting synapses out of control. Both needed and unnecessary connections are cut off.

Antipsychotic medications subdue delusions and hallucinations, which are the most sensationalized symptoms of schizophrenia. Negative effects on attention, emotional intelligence, memory, information processing and problem-solving skills are the long-term debilitating issues that make holding down a job and meaningful relationships near impossible.

A protein molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF) activates the hippocampus – a central portion of the brain that controls learning and long-term memory – like energy tokens in a video game.

Schizophrenia and exercise

A University of Cambridge study demonstrated brain-training games can improve learning and memory for individuals with schizophrenia. Now, UCLA researchers have discovered adding aerobic exercise, 2 1/2 hours weekly, can dramatically improve functionality of a brain disturbed by schizophrenia.

In the two recent studies presented just this spring, young adults recently experiencing their first schizophrenic episode participated in an activity regimen, combined with antipsychotic medication. The regimen included brain-training computer exercises for all and additional vigorous activity for half the participants. Exercise was four times a week for 150 minutes total.

Computer-based brain activities can reportedly reverse one-quarter to one-third of cognition deficits. Throughout the UCLA studies, the cognitive performance of study participants who completed brain training exclusively did not change. But those who participated in physical exercise developed significantly.

Among those who exercised in the second study, performance enhancement on a whole host of cognitive tests was three times more than participants who did not work out. BDNF also soared 35 percent in the brain and body-exercising group. What’s more, half of that increase happened within the first two weeks of the study.

A cognitive test that gauges self-regulation in complex social situations proved about 50 percent better for the participants who worked out.

The go-to combination to knock out schizophrenia chronic disability

It turns out that BDNF proteins are released during aerobic activity, which might explain how exercising participant’s brains could exponentially cash in on the energy tokens, so to speak, and enhance brain function.

Researchers affirm treating people as soon as possible after their first psychotic episode can mean the difference between life-governing chronic schizophrenia and mindful management of the disease.

Says Nuechterlein: “This kind of computer training and exercise – in combination with antipsychotic medication – might go a long way toward doing that.”

The Sovereign Health Group in Rancho San Diego is focused on teens aged 12-17. We are a nationwide leader in cutting-edge treatment and holistic modalities for rehabilitation from mental health issues that manifest in drug addiction, eating disorders or mental health problems. Sovereign uses modern and alternative therapies for lasting recovery. Call our 24/7 helpline for details.

About the author

Sovereign Health Group staff writer Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at

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