For schizophrenia patients, exercise can be a powerful therapy

Van Nuys maintenance worker Marco Tapia had a schizophrenic breakdown at age 24. His family thought he had been taking drugs because he was acting so … strange. When he tried to use a window instead of the door to get into their Van Nuys apartment, they realized something was terribly wrong. His parents then had him hospitalized.

After stabilizing him, Harbor UCLA Medical Center referred Marco to UCLA’s Aftercare Research Program. The program is a cradle for innovation and research on schizophrenia. Best of all, given the Tapia family’s modest means, the program was – and still is – absolutely free.

Marco enrolled in an intensive two-year research project, the results of which are in press now in Schizophrenia Bulletin. Preliminary findings from a follow-up study were recently presented at the biennial meeting of the Schizophrenia International Research Society.

The findings show that a rigorous regimen of specific brain games and physical exercise can help repair one of the least-known but most-debilitating aspects of schizophrenia -- deficits in memory, problem solving, processing speed and social intelligence. These social and cognitive deficits are among the disease traits most likely to result in disability for people with schizophrenia.

The results are extremely promising, but researchers caution that interventions need to occur as quickly as possible after the first breakdown, because each recurrence leads to additional cognitive and social deficits. They also need to be used in conjunction with antipsychotic medications.

“What’s striking to us is the power of combination,” said lead investigator Keith Nuechterlein in an interview with Kaiser Health News. Nuechterlein is a professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “Both [brain games and exercise] done separately help somewhat, but when done together, the boost in cognitive function is greater.”

The combination appears to stimulate the growth of neurons and connections between neurons, improving cognitive performance, researchers say.

As for Marco, 28, his conversation today reveals no trace of his prior problems. Four years after his breakdown, he’s employed, plays the guitar, has an active social life and is eager to let others know the importance of getting immediate help -- and the right kind of help -- for schizophrenia.

Neuchterlein ranked as one of most influential scientists in his field

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