Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Move your body: How Exercise affects the workings of the Nervous System

wdegue's picture

Throughout the semester in Neurobiology 202, we learned how the brain is not a standing-alone entity; it serves as the center of the nervous system, summarizing all the inputs from our neurons and provides us with a coherent and relatable story. Every class, we became additionally acquainted with the brain’s workings and how that affects our everyday lives. Towards the end of the semester, when the concepts of how our nervous system works continue to become clearer, one thing persist for me, and that is how smart is the lower section of the nervous system; below the neck? Does the rest of the nervous system need to be connected with the brain in order to perform properly? Although the answer might seem obvious, through research I came upon the developing science of locomotive training, which led me to discover alternatives to the ‘brain-in-charge’ model.

Locomotive Training is a fairly new rehabilitative treatment that “…places patients on the treadmill in an upright position and suspended in a harness by a cable at the maximum load at which knee buckling and trunk collapse can be avoided”(2). The treatment came to the public’s attention when the late superman actor; Christopher Reeves, whom lost mobility after his accident in 1995, reported feeling sensation in his lower body after using the treatment. However, scientists have been finding data since 1910 that shows how the rest of the nervous system is not as helpless as many believe it to be. After experiencing with cats and rats, looking for ways through which the training can be better understood and improved. Locomotive training has being available and tried on humans since 1989 (2).

However, despite success stories, the new treatment continues to face with many skepticism. In 1995, Anton Wernig; a German neurophysiologist, and his team published the first well-respected paper in the field. He reported on an extensive experiment done on the locomotive training program where he had three control groups. One with recent injuries who were wheelchair bound, one with longer injuries who are also wheelchair bound and another who participated in traditional therapy. “Of the 36 patients with recent cord injuries who were wheelchair bound at the start of the study, 33 learned to walk independently, at least with the aid of walkers or canes, after treadmill training;” whereas only 12 of 14 in the second group and 1 of 14 in the third group became independent (1).

Of course there exist advantages and disadvantages to any therapy regiment. For instance, a locomotive therapy regiment is not very beneficial for those who have experienced ‘clinically complete injuries;’ which means that the individual’s brain and the spinal cord has been completely severed, there exist no communication between the two. However, even for those who have ‘clinically incomplete injuries’ it does not restore balance. Therefore, often the person will have trouble holding on to canes or walkers to stabilize themselves enough to walk. Despite these drawbacks there exist various advantages in using this treatment. The exercise helps tone muscles, relieves soreness and brings the body back into a routine of movement. One patient after participating in the program reported to have his legs to ‘just start walking’ (1). Even for those who do not maximize its use by regaining mobility, it is psychologically beneficial to the individual to see him/herself up and about. One patient, who had a palm tree fall on him while walking his dog, reported to New York Times in the first wave of testing the treatment in the US that he likes to see himself “…up and breaking a sweat…” Having led a very active lifestyle before his accident, the patient finds that being confined to a wheelchair is “…eating [him] alive” (3), thus locomotive training is greatly helping him cope.

The findings on Locomotive training and the nervous system’s ability to rewire itself in various cases lead me to believe that the body can be thought of having a limited rebooting system available if maneuvered properly, and more often than not, it comes through the use of exercise. By getting the body in motion it learns to readapt to its new situation and environment. This idea is supported by recent studies on how the brain and the nervous system can grow additional cells through exercise (4, 5). Of course when it comes to locomotive training, age and layover between injury and treatment play a great role in the success of the program, but it is reassuring to know that the lower section of the nervous system is not completely worthless without the full support of the brain.


Work Cited:


1: Retraining the Spine. NIH Report, page 7. Spring 2002

2: Teaching the Spinal Cord to Walk. / Science, vol. 279. January 16 1998

3: Goode, Erica., No Dullard, Spinal Cord Proves It Can Learn. New York Times, September 21, 1999.

4: Carmichael, Mary., Stronger, Faster, Smarter: Exercise does more than build muscles and help prevent heart disease. New science shows that it also boosts brainpower—and may offer hope in the battle against Alzheimer's. Newsweek, 2007

5: Miller, Michael Craig., M.D. Exercise Is a State of Mind: Researchers are learning more about how physical activity affects our moods. Is sweat the hot new antidepressant? Newsweek, 2007




Cader Hussain's picture


My chile born with Meningocele, and my son faciling very difficulty to get up or walk currently he is not involving in any physical therapy,and he is on a wheel chair. therefore i am intrested in your services and would like to know how i can get in touch with your services for my son. if you can please email me your details where i can contact someone.

jamma's picture


it would be bad to have a disable child
you woludn't want to put them through suffering like cystic fibrosis
i feel so sorry for them
my brother had an accident 9 years ago
he hasn't been the same since
i hope people who say bad things about disabled children are really sorry
they go through alot

maria fowler's picture

disabled child

i have a child that was born with spina bifida, and is currently reciveing physical therapy. but still is unable to walk independently with out braces and holding onto a walker.he has over all feeling but very week muscles. i am intrested in your services and would like to know how i can get in touch with your services for my son. if you can please email me back information or maybe a number where i can reach someone.

thank you
maria fowler