Effects of exercise training on neurotrophic factors and subsequent neuroprotection in persons with multiple sclerosis—a systematic review and meta-analysis

Mette D. Diechmann, Evan Campbell, Elaine Coulter, Lorna Paul, Ulrik Dalgas, Lars G. Hvid*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Evidence indicates that exercise holds the potential to counteract neurodegeneration experienced by persons with multiple sclerosis (pwMS), which is in part believed to be mediated through increases in neurotrophic factors. There is a need to summarize the existing evidence on exercise-induced effects on neurotrophic factors alongside neuroprotection in pwMS. Aim: To (1) systematically review the evidence on acute (one session)and/or chronic (several sessions) exercise-induced changes in neurotrophic factors in pwMS and (2) investigate the potential translational link between exercise-induced changes in neurotrophic factors and neuroprotection. Methods: Five databases (Medline, Scopus, Web of Science, Embase, Sport Discus) were searched for randomized controlled trials (RCT) examining the effects of exercise (all modalities included) on neurotrophic factors as well as measures of neuroprotection if reported. The quality of the study designs and the exercise interventions were assessed by use of the validated tool TESTEX. Results: From N = 337 identified studies, N = 14 RCTs were included. While only N = 2 of the identified studies reported on the acute changes in neurotrophic factors, all N = 14 RCTs reported on the chronic effects, with N = 9 studies revealing between-group differences in favor of exercise. This was most prominent for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), with between-group differences in favor of exercise being observed in N = 6 out of N = 12 studies. Meta-analyses were applicable for three out of 10 different identified neurotrophic factors and revealed that exercise can improve the chronic levels of BDNF (delta changes; N = 9, ES = 0.78 (0.27; 1.28), p = 0.003, heterogeneity between studies) and potentially also ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) (N = 3, ES = 0.24 (−0.07; 0.54), p = 0.13, no heterogeneity between studies) but not nerve growth factor (NGF) (N = 4, ES = 0.28 (−0.55; 1.11), p = 0.51, heterogeneity between studies). Indicators of neuroprotection(e.g., with direct measures of brain structure assessed by MRI) were assessed in N = 3 of the identified studies only, with N = 2 partly supporting and thus indicating a potential translational link between increases in neurotrophic factors and neuroprotection. Conclusion: The present study reveals that exercise can elicit improvements in chronic levels of BDNF in pwMS, whereas the effects of exercise on chronic levels of other neurotrophic factors and on acute levels of neurotrophic factors in general, along with a potential translational link (i.e., with exercise-induced improvements in neurotropic factors being associated with or even mediating neuroprotection), are sparse and inconclusive. There is a need for more high-quality studies that assess neurotrophic factors (applying comparable methods of blood handling and analysis) concomitantly with neuroprotective outcome measures.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1499
Number of pages21
JournalBrain Sciences
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 12 Nov 2021


  • multiple sclerosis
  • neurotrophic factor
  • neuroprotection
  • exercise training
  • brain-derived neurotrophic factor
  • meta-analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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