Comparing the influence of exercise intensity on brain-derived neurotrophic factor serum levels in people with Parkinson’s disease: a pilot study

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Endogenous brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is thought to be protective against the neurodegeneration seen in Parkinson’s disease (PD), and is thought to increase during exercise. This has been proposed as a possible mechanism by which exercise improves outcomes for people with PD. We conducted a pilot study to investigate the role of exercise intensity on BDNF levels in people with PD.


Participants of early- to mid-stage disease were recruited from a single PD service in north-east England, UK into two separate studies of exercise in PD, one involving moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) and one involving high-intensity interval training (HIIT), both had control groups. In both the interventions, participants exercise three times per week for 12 weeks. Blood samples were taken for BDNF analysis at the start and end of the first session and the start and end of the final session, with corresponding samples taken in controls.


Data were available for 27 participants (13 intervention, 14 control) in the MICT intervention and 17 (9 intervention, 8 control) in the HIIT intervention. BDNF level did not rise significantly from the start to end of individual sessions. Across the 12 week period, they rose significantly in the HIIT intervention group, but not in controls or the MICT intervention group.


High-intensity interval training appears to have a greater impact on BDNF than MICT. Future work should directly compare exercise modalities and investigate the impact of BDNF levels on disease progression and quality of life.

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Data availability

The datasets generated during and analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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We thank all people with PD who participated in this study. We would also like to thank all members of the Parkinson’s Team and the Research and Development Department at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust who assisted in data collection, in particular Steve Dodds and Moire McDonald.


The MICT study was funded by a Parkinson’s UK innovation grant and a British Geriatrics Society SpR start-up grant. This HIIT study was funded by a grant from The Graham Wylie Foundation, UK. Speedflex Europe Ltd allowed use of their facilities and equipment free of charge. Neither the Graham Wylie Foundation, Speedflex Europe Ltd nor any employee of Speedflex Europe Ltd had any role in the design of the study, in data collection or analysis, in the writing of this manuscript, or in the decision to submit this manuscript for publication. Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust acknowledges the support of the National Institute of Health Research Clinical Research Network (NIHR CRN).

Author information




This study was conceived, organised and managed by AOC, MH, RW, WKG, KW and LO. Data collection was done by AOC, MH, WKG and RW. Statistical analysis and writing of the first draft of the paper was done by BR, MH and WKG. All the listed authors were involved in the preparation, review and critique of the final manuscript. All the authors have approved the final article for submission.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William K. Gray.

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Conflict of interest

Dr Kathryn Weston was employed by Speedflex Europe Ltd as an exercise physiologist from July 2013 to January 2014 but was not involved with the company at the time of the study. All the other authors report no conflicts of interest.

Research involving human participants

All the procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and the national ethical review boards cited below. The MICT intervention protocol was approved by Newcastle and North Tyneside Research Ethics Committee (reference number: 12/NE/0188). The study protocol was registered on the ISRCTN database (ISRCTN13611537). The HIIT intervention protocol was approved by Newcastle and North Tyneside Research Ethics Committee (reference number: 15/NE/0257). The study protocol was registered on the ISRCTN database (ISRCTN75458559). Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust was responsible for study integrity and conduct. The studies were performed in accordance with the ethical standards as laid down in the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. Consent was obtained by a senior member of the research team prior to enrolment. All participants had capacity to consent.

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O’Callaghan, A., Harvey, M., Houghton, D. et al. Comparing the influence of exercise intensity on brain-derived neurotrophic factor serum levels in people with Parkinson’s disease: a pilot study. Aging Clin Exp Res 32, 1731–1738 (2020).

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  • Parkinson’s disease
  • High-intensity interval training
  • Physiotherapy
  • High-intensity exercise
  • Brain-derived neurotrophic factor