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Canberra vision researchers tout ‘exercise in a pill’ for immobile people

Eye researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) have identified unique molecular signals that could hold the key to developing a supplement that administers the health benefits of exercise to people incapable of physical activity.

The molecular messages – which were the focus of a systematic review into the benefits of exercise on the central nervous system and eyes published in Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology – are sent to the brain and potentially the retina immediately after exercise.

The ANU team is conducting research to better understand what impact these molecular messages have on retinal health, but also the central nervous system and eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Associate Professor Riccardo Natoli, head of Clear Vision Research at ANU, said the molecules could potentially be hijacked, recoded and “bottled up” in a pill and taken like a vitamin.

“The beneficial messages being sent to the central nervous system during exercise are packaged up in what are known as lipid particles. We are essentially prescribing the molecular message of exercise to those who physically aren’t able to,” he said.

“We think that as you age, the ability to communicate between the muscles and the retina starts to be lost. Similar to taking supplements, maybe we can provide genetic or molecular supplementation that enables that natural biological process to continue as we age.

“Our goal is to figure out what these molecules are communicating to the body and how they’re communicating.”

The new ANU review of existing literature set out to discover what impact exercise has on the retina and whether exercise can help maintain good eyesight as people age.

Dr Joshua Chu-Tan, also from the ANU Clear Vision Research Lab, said further research was needed to understand how these molecular signals, which are sent from the rest of the body when we exercise, actually reach the brain and eyes.

He said the team’s preliminary research into the benefits of exercise on the retina has unearthed some “promising” results.

“We know exercise is good for our eyesight, but to what extent is still unknown. Our aim is to understand the benefits of exercise at the molecular level and how it is beneficial for the central nervous system and the retina,” Chu-Tan said.

“We found the benefits of exercise extend far beyond what has traditionally been known, however this has been largely understudied in the retina, despite the retina being an extension of the brain.”

The researchers believe the futuristic supplement therapy could one day help patients suffering from neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“We know that from looking at diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s if you exercise in a particular fashion you can potentially stimulate neuronal activity,” Chu-Tan said.

“That hasn’t really been looked at in the retina at the level we’re thinking of. We want to understand the molecular messages that underpin the benefits of exercise.”

The researchers say the supplement would be intended only for patients who have restricted movement that renders them unable to exercise at an intensity needed to reap the rewards. It is not intended for the general public.

“We can’t possibly package all the effects of exercise into a single pill, there are too many benefits that stretch throughout the entire body beyond what we could ‘prescribe’ and that’s not the goal,” Chu-Tan added.

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