The National Institutes of Health has awarded a College of Health researcher and his team a five-year, $3 million grant to study the long-term effects of aerobic exercise on slowing the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

“Our previous work clearly indicates that exercise, such as strength training or cycling, in a controlled laboratory environment improves motor function over the course of eight weeks to 12 weeks,” said Lee Dibble, Ph.D., lead University of Utah researcher in the groundbreaking research project and Associate Chair in the Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training at the University of Utah.

The research will be conducted in Salt Lake City and Cleveland, Ohio. Dibble will collaborate with Cleveland Clinic researcher Jay Alberts, Ph.D. 

The project aims to determine if long-term, high-intensity aerobic exercise can slow the advancement of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disease. To date, no surgical or pharmacological intervention has been effective in slowing disease progression. This project will be one of the first long-term investigations of the potential for aerobic exercise to alter disease progression.

“This project is important in understanding how exercise can slow disease progression and how a laboratory-based intervention translates to the home of the person with Parkinson’s disease,” said Dibble. “To bring an effective intervention outside of our laboratory or clinic at the University of Utah to the home of a patient outside of our zip code is an exciting next step in the treatment of Parkinson’s.”

This research will build upon the previous research expertise of Dibble and Alberts. Dibble and his team have demonstrated the value of high intensity resistance training on mobility, balance control, and disease severity. Alberts and his team used a high-intensity aerobic exercise program to improve global motor function, specific aspects of walking, and cognitive function. The positive outcomes from these previous studies provides a strong rationale to evaluate effectiveness of long-term exercise in a home-based setting to impact a greater number of people with Parkinson’s disease.

In the Cyclical Lower Extremity for Parkinson’s (CYCLE) trial, the University of Utah and the Cleveland Clinic will recruit 250 people with Parkinson’s, who will be randomized to a high-intensity home exercise or usual and customary care, or UCC, group. CYCLE’s exercise group will utilize indoor cycling bikes from fitness technology company Peloton. 

Participants will be instructed to exercise three times a week for 12 months; the UCC group will be instructed to engage in normal activities. The exercise and control groups will undergo identical motor and non-motor testing: at enrollment, six, and 12 months.

Overall activity levels will be monitored for both groups via a wearable device. Exercise performance data will be used to determine if there is an optimal exercise dose necessary to slow disease progression. Identifying a necessary exercise dose will provide clinicians with more specific recommendations for people with Parkinson’s disease and provide them an opportunity to play a more active role in the treatment of this disease.

National Institutes of Health, NIH, is the primary agency of the United States government responsible for biomedical and public health research. It was founded in the late 1870s, and is now part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Most NIH facilities are located in Bethesda, Maryland.