Friday, December 7, 2012

Exercise and FASD

I recently read a review of  SPARK: THE REVOLUTIONARY NEW SCIENCE OF EXERCISE AND THE BRAIN by John J. Ratey.  In the review written by Rich Haglund I was caught by this particular paragraph:
Participation in … physical activity before school started led to significant academic achievement. On the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Naperville students finished first in the world in science and sixth in math, behind Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. Because Naperville is a “demographically advantaged school district,” Ratey looked at poorer communities where Naperville-style PE programs were applied. In Titusville, Pennsylvania, similar results occurred. Since implementing the program, scores in Titusville went from below the state average to 17 percent above the state average in reading, and to 18 percent above in math.  

I was hooked and went looking for more information.  I hoped to see if there was any cause to think that this general result would prove applicable specifically to children with FASD.  In the words of John Ratey himself I found this:

“Exercise turns on the attention system, the so called executive functions-sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting and sustaining attention…. On a practical level it causes kids to be less impulsive which makes them more primed to learn.”
Yowza – sounds tailor made for the FASD brain doesn’t it.  Anytime something sounds too good to be true I like to dig further to see who the source is and if there is more than just their voice.  John Ratey is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School so I am pretty comfortable there.  I also found information on research by Dr. Brian Christie, a neuroscientist at the University of Victoria into the Exercise / FASD link.
Dr.Brian Christie  (link to the article) and Dr. Chris Bertram are hoping to prove that exercise and use of motor skills strengths can positively change the FASD brain specifically.  They have already completed animal studies on this connection and currently have a study of the impact on human subjects going on right now.
In the documentation for their animal studies they note that exercise has been used to improve the brain in other brain disorders and to help those with traumatic brain injuries for years, with much success. So logically it should follow that the same could work for FASD. You can find more info on their current study here .  They are using cardio bikes connected with video games to hold the childrens' interest in exercise for the required length of time. 
In their animal models of FASD, the scientists behind this study have been able to significantly reduce neurocognitive deficits by having animals engage in regular cardiovascular exercise. The results are dramatic, and are coupled to an increase in BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). In the present study they hope to take the first steps to translate this work into the human realm.  I only wish I lived close enough for Little Man to participate – from the video they have posted of the game element he would love it and even if it doesn’t yield the same spectacular results in humans that it does in mice *** it couldn’t hurt.
Unfortunately we don’t live anywhere near there, so what can I - as parent - take from the research that is being conducted into exercise, motor skills, and the brain?  Well there are a few things I can do right now:

1. Make sure Little Man is getting enough exercise, at minimum one hour a day. 90 minutes is actually the amount recommended by doctors for ALL children so that may be an even better goal for our children effected with FASD. (I’m betting this won’t be a problem for those whose children also have ADHD)

2. Build on Little Man’s strengths. Allow him to do physical activities he is good at instead of insisting on practice of skills he doesn’t have.  Little Man LOVES to run.  His ball skills for kicking, throwing, catching, bouncing etc. are not so good.  I know at school they make him work on dribbling, hand and foot, and playing catch.  Great, good – for skill development but for just getting the heart going and neurons growing – hell let him RUN.
3.  Pick up and read a copy of Spark to see if I find more ideas!

*** Unfortunately, it is not expected to be AS successful in humans since our brain structures and function are so much more complex but it is still expected to yield positive results.  I can’t wait to see the outcome.

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