Vision Health

Exercise Could Help with Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Here’s an additional benefit of being active: Moderate aerobic exercise could help slow the progression of retinal degenerative diseases, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

The results of the animal study were published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

One of the leading causes of blindness in older people, AMD is caused by the death of light-sensing nerve cells in the retina called photoreceptors.

Researchers from Emory University ran mice on a treadmill for two weeks before and after exposing them to the kind of bright light that causes retinal degeneration. The investigators found that treadmill training preserved photoreceptors and retinal cell function in the mice.

“This is the first report of simple exercise having a direct effect on retinal health and vision,” said researcher Machelle Pardue . “This…may one day lead to tailored exercise regimens or combination therapies in treatments of blinding diseases.”  

In the current study, the scientists trained mice to run on a treadmill for one hour per day, five days per week, for two weeks. After the animals were exposed to toxic bright light — a commonly used model of retinal degeneration — they exercised for two more weeks.

The retinal cells of exercised mice were more responsive to light and had higher levels of a growth- and health-promoting protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which previous studies have linked to the beneficial effects of exercise. When the scientists blocked the receptors for BDNF in the exercised mice, they discovered that retinal function decreased in the exercised mice until it was as poor as in the inactive mice, effectively eliminating the protective effects of the aerobic exercise.

“These findings further our current understanding of the neuroprotective effects of aerobic exercise and the role of BDNF,” explained Michelle Ploughman, PhD, who studies the effects of exercise on the healthy and diseased brain at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and was not involved with this study. “People who are at risk of macular degeneration or have early signs of the disease may be able to slow down the progression of visual impairment,” she added.

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