A recent meta-analysis, led by Jospeh Firth and researchers from the University of Manchester have found that exercise specifically improves social cognition, working memory and the attention span of patients with schizophrenia.

Published  in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin, the meta-analysis looked at the results of 10 clinical trials which involved the role of exercise in 385 profiles of patients with schizophrenia. Benefits of exercise in normal individuals are no secret and innumerable studies have covered those, i.e., exercise is known to subtly increase attention, processing speed, memory and executive functioning among overall public. But what made this study different was the fact that it analyzed the cognitive and social effects of exercise in patients with schizophrenia, the successful treatment of whom is one of the biggest challenges in neuromedicine.

Schizophrenia is a disorder in which the association between thoughts, feelings and actions is halted. Positive symptoms of diseases are additional behaviors which are not observed in healthy individuals, like hallucinations and delusions. Negative symptoms, on the other hand, are the list of behaviors that do not show up naturally in people. These include less speaking, less emotions and the peculiar flat effect which means the patient shows negligible facial expressions.

Worst of all the symptoms are the cognitive ones. The cognitive symptoms are: lower processing skills, inferior decision making skills, short attention span and a bad working memory. Combined these symptoms make it tough for a schizophrenic to function in a competitive environment and become a productive member of the society.

The current analysis shows that the symptoms which medication has a tough time treating, social withdrawal, can in fact be dealt with using aerobic exercise. The more a patient exercised, the better were the outcomes.

The authors wrote, “Exercise dosage appears to be an important factor for achieving cognitive enhancement.” However, they noted that the effects seemed most prominent when the exercise was performed in the presence of a physical activity professional. Schizophrenic patients require rigorous professional assistance and supervision in order to reduce the risk of any untoward event.

The disorder is considered to have one of the most severe consequences among all mental illnesses and mostly strikes people in their 20s. The WHO states that there are 21 million patients of schizophrenia and that more than 50% of them do not get proper care. Patients are twice as more likely to die young than healthy people and have a much higher rate of suicides. The decreased cognitive skills are the major cause for why schizophrenic patients usually wind up homeless or in jails.

Currently, the disorder has no cure. However, there are treatments which when employed can help in living a stable life. The treatment is mainly composed of two parts. The first is medication which mainly comprises of antipsychotics. These drugs mostly try to manage the elevated levels of dopamine in patients. The second is the psychosocial help to aid the patient manage their stress levels and help them socialize better. And since the disease has so profound behavioral symptoms, doctors do not need special biomarker tests for its diagnosis, they do it clinically solely on the basis of behavioral signs.

Like in any good scientific discovery, this paper has revealed new questions. Researchers will now attempt to uncover exactly how exercise increases the brains plasticity hence increasing the cognitive skills. The authors have hinted in the paper that the reason plasticity increases might be the simple upsurge in the brains oxygen supply due to the improved cardiovascular system resulting from exercise.

Although a better oxygen supply to the brain has been established as a requirement from making new neuronal connections, the exact mechanism at play in brain plasticity might be otherwise. For example, another study has found a different mechanism, one involving growth factors in the brain. Fortunately, no matter what process turns out to be at play here, the researchers will eventually be able to figure out the optimal exercise system for patients with schizophrenia that will assist them in better integrating into the society.