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No looking back

How a research breakthrough is giving back control —and hope — to MS patients

By Michelle Osmond and Rebecca Rebeiro

Over the years, Jennifer Archer watched as her mother and her grandmother succumbed to the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS).

So when she, too, was diagnosed with the disease 30 years ago, she knew what her fate would be. Or, at least she thought she did. Then Ms. Archer met Dr. Michelle Ploughman and her team at Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine.

In August 2018 Ms. Archer signed up for a study that involved intensive aerobic training, something she thought she’d never be able to do three decades into her illness.

There are no exercise-based interventions for MS patients as most are told not to exercise because it could worsen their symptoms.

Faculty of Medicine, research, multiple sclerosis, Recovery and Performance Laboratory
From left are Jennifer Archer and Lisa Cooney. The women took part in a MS research study that gave them a new perspective on their illness.
Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

Refused to give in

Lisa Cooney, who was diagnosed 19 years ago, was told by family members to let everyone else take care of her.

In fact, three years ago, after numerous falls, her physiotherapist suggested getting a wheelchair.

But Ms. Cooney refused to give up her independence and persisted in her every day activities, even though it often made her symptoms worse.

The goal of the study was to find ways to improve walking ability in people with MS, specifically treadmill training, and how it could improve walking and impact brain recovery.

Watch the video below to see Ms. Cooney walking on the treadmill.

For 12 weeks, the nine participants did 30 minutes of exercise, three times a week.

The research team at the Recovery and Performance Laboratory measured walking speed, oxygen use, lesions in the brain, brain-to-muscle communication and markers of recovery in the blood.

Beyond mobility

At the start of the study, Ms. Archer thought she’d get through two, maybe three, minutes of walking on the treadmill.

To her great surprise, she did 40 minutes off the top.

Now, Ms. Archer is running upstairs. Ms. Cooney likes to joke she is going to lose her canes because she “keeps forgetting” to take them places.

“I’m a person who has MS, but I’ve pulled MS away from who I am.” — Jennifer Archer

Both women say participating in the study has improved their mobility, how far and how fast they can walk, and muscle tone.

But it’s given them so much more than mobility: It’s also given them energy, new friends and, most importantly, hope.

“Psychologically, this has helped me so much. My depression is non-existent since I started this,” Ms. Archer added. “That means MS has not beaten me down. MS does not have control over my life. I have control over my life. I’m a person who has MS, but I’ve pulled MS away from who I am.”

Faculty of Medicine, Recovery and Performance Laboratory, multiple sclerosis, research
Dr. Michelle Ploughman and her team at the Recovery and Performance Laboratory along with participants in the MS and exercise study.
Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

“One of the biggest things with MS is that it takes away so much control,” said Ms. Cooney. “My biggest fear with walking was, if I go there, I have to come back. And because I didn’t know where that halfway mark was, I didn’t do it. This study has given us control.”

Atlantic Canada has the highest rates of MS in Canada and the world. Dr. Ploughman says the two factors that contribute to that high rate are lack of vitamin D and genetics.

Ms. Cooney calls the illness “MS and her posse” because it affects so many other things: bowel, bladder, spasms, fatigue, chronic pain, swallowing, speech, memory loss and cognitive function.

“This is not supposed to happen, according to the textbooks.” — Dr. Michelle Ploughman

Dr. Ploughman believes there are a lot of factors that can’t be changed about MS, but fatigue, they now know, is not one of them.

They did warn participants that they didn’t know if the study would help them or make them feel worse. All nine participants were willing to take the chance.

Dr. Ploughman, who is Memorial’s Canada Research Chair in Neuroplasticity, Neurorehabilitation and Brain Recovery, along with Augustine Joshua Devasahayam, co-principal investigator on the study, were both surprised and more than pleased with the outcomes.

“It’s remarkable,” said Dr. Ploughman. “This is not supposed to happen, according to the textbooks. It hasn’t been recorded before.”

Looking forward

Ms. Archer is planning to train for the Tely 10 and she and Ms. Cooney hope to participate in a walk to raise awareness about MS and depression. They both exercise regularly.

Ms. Archer bought a treadmill for her home and walks on it three times a week for 40 minutes — with no harness and holding on with one hand.

“When you have MS, you never think you’re going to get better than what you are because it’s degenerative. You think, this is the way my life is and I can’t get any stronger or do what other people do. But now I feel like I have my life back.”

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