Aaron Sez: Part five of a conversation about "A Father's Search for a Drug for Down Syndrome"

We're continuing our multi-part conversation about our responses to the recent NY Times piece called "A Father's Search for a Drug for Down Syndrome."  Today's guest post is different in a couple of ways.  All previous guest-posters have been parents of kids with Down syndrome. Today's guest poster is an uncle of a kid with Down syndrome.  It's my brother Aaron!

So one of the ways this post is different is the uncle-angle.  Another way it's different is that Aaron is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Kinesiology at UNC-Greensboro. His area of interest is exercise psychology, and that's where this post is coming from. As you may remember, in a comment on the first post in this series, Aaron said he was going to go read Costa's research.  Well, he did that, and now he's offering a totally different set of questions and considerations than previous guest posters. 

Also, he is a Ph.D. student who is perfectly comfortable using "doo doo" as a category of analysis.

So I read/skimmed a few of the studies that Costa and his colleagues did. My main observation is that these are scientists interested in how drugs can be used to increase the cognitive performance of those with DS. Drugs are their thing. So, they're looking at their questions through this lens.

In the same regard I'm looking at all of my questions through the lens of exercise. This is what I have to say after reading the literature (To be fair, I only read the 3 articles specifically mentioned in the NYT - these guys have published loads of stuff).

MEDICINE has been found to increase the number of brain cells in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus (Prozac), as well as increase cognitive performance (Memantine) in rats.

EXERCISE has been found to do the same thing. What's interesting is that Costa actually cites one of the foundational pieces of literature that shows how exercise increases neurogenesis (new brain cell growth), but he doesn't mention how his results match up (better, worse, same). I pulled up both articles to compare their findings and the metrics were off. Just lead me to a bunch of questions regarding the experimental design of the study that I don't think you'd be very interested in.

Additionally, Costa's justification for testing the effectiveness of Memantine comes from an exploration into a potential mechanism of the early onset Alzheimer's-like symptoms that a lot of people with DS get. It's been seen that exercise helps with symptoms of Alzheimer's - especially in those with certain genetic predispositions for early onset.

The NYT article goes on to mention other studies that have shown that learning is enhanced by increasing norepinephrine and decreasing beta amyloid deposits. Exercise does this too.

Here's what we need to know: Which helps more; exercise or meds? Is there an interaction? Meaning, is it even better to do both? Past studies have shown that some antidepressants increase the expression of BDNF (like miracle grow for brain cells) in the dentate gyrus. However, exercise been found to do the same thing. And, when combined with drugs, it does even better.

Obviously, I look to exercise for answers. However, there are several reasons why it's important that we know if exercise is a viable option for increasing cognitive performance, quality of life, and physical health (regardless of your net chromosome count). Exercise is free for everyone! It helps with our entire self (mind and body). And the side effects include: looking awesome, feeling great, having better doo doo's, sleeping better, increased insulin sensitivity (bye bye diabetes), etc...

So, we don't know how well this magic pill stacks up against the exercise studies that are out there. And, actually, I haven't seen any studies that have looked at these exercise questions with mice or people with DS. However, based on what is out there, I see a lot of parallels. And, I'm 100% sure that most parents of kids with DS would agree that making sure that their kids get enough physical activity is a good thing. No guilty Matrix-like dilemmas (should I take the blue pill?)- just moving your body.

I'm all for increasing cognitive performance. But, when dealing with meds, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered first (especially with kids!). The little I've read about the experiences kids with ADHD have while trying to adjust to their meds has been heart breaking. Sometimes meds can really help someone out, but sometimes they can cause more problems than they solve (medical, social, etc).

Part one
Part two
Part three 
Part four


Alison said...

This is awesome. And would you please do and/or promote some DS research in exercise?

The Mom said...

Wow! I love to watch your thought process here. I agree with Alison - I was hoping to see that you now plan to do (or promote) DS research in exercise. What a team you two make! (OK, that was kinda "proud mama" there!)

Aaron said...

Thanks y'all. I'm glad that you think it's interesting. I came to UNCG thinking I was going to become a counselor for athletes, and then was exposed to this type of research (my advisor's expertise) and changed my mind.

There is definitely a lack of DS related exercise and cognition research. Who knows what I'll end up researching :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Aaron. I'll be curious to see what you find out from this line of research.

(Also, a little weird to see Alison's little brother writing so all-grown-up and stuff. Impressive, but weird. I do realize you are now officially grown.)


krlr said...

I was vaguely aware that exercise fixes almost everything but hadn't thought about it in that light. Thank you! One more reason for me to get up off the couch (& take my girl with me) - now, if they only had a pill to make the getting off the couch easier!