Student explores how exercise improves multiple sclerosis

Erin Edwards grew up a prolific athlete, passionate about sport and physical activity. Though it wasn’t until her grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s that she started thinking about the science behind exercise for the brain.

“I became interested in how exercise demonstrates many compelling links to improving the quality of lives of persons with neurologic disorders,” Edwards said. “A lot was being figured out but still so much was unknown.”

Wanting to know more, she studied neuroscience as an undergrad at the University of New England where she ran cross-country for the NCAA.

The knowledge she gleaned those first few years in her higher education career evolved into research questions. She enrolled in the translational neuroscience program in the Wayne State University School of Medicine to find the answers and chose to work with Nora Fritz, Ph.D., in the Neuroimaging and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory, part of the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, to explore the connections between movement, thinking and the brain.

“We leverage this knowledge to enhance targeted rehabilitation therapies aimed at improving both clinically observable function and underlying brain pathology in persons with multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative diseases,” Edwards said.

Edwards in particular studies backward walking as a novel biomarker of fall risk, cognitive decline and underlying brain damage in persons with MS. Fritz had previously examined how backward walking detects fall risk in the elderly. Together, Fritz and Edwards determined that backward walking maintained the same efficacy to detect falls in persons with MS, she said, but why it works so well as a detection method remained unknown.

“Dr. Fritz and I realized that if we could target the underlying factors driving the efficacy of backward walking to detect falls,” Edwards said “we could likely identify other promising neural targets for fall risk detection and develop individualized rehabilitation therapies to decrease disease progression and improve quality of lives for persons with MS.”

During Edwards’ stint as a doctoral student in the lab, she has assisted in the development and execution of clinical trials investigating how physical activity impacts the MS community in Detroit.

“Seeing our research participants drastically improve their movement, thinking, confidence and overall quality of life has truly been inspiring.”

Edwards won 1st place with that research in the 2021 3MT at the Graduate Research Symposium for her presentation "Backward walking as a novel marker of fall risk in multiple sclerosis.”

The Fritz lab is currently in the midst of a clinical trial that Edwards said is seeing excellent observable results.

“Hearing ‘I feel like I don’t even have MS anymore!’ from a participant leaves your heart full and your motivation to continue onward even higher.”

Still, there’s much more to learn about backward walking and its use as an assessment tool and exercise overall when it comes to improving neurological disorders, she said.

These are questions she aims to explore outside WSU after she graduates in May 2022 with her Ph.D. and moves to a position as a medical science liaison in MS therapeutic practice.

“MSLs are the pipeline between research development and clinical application and I truly cannot wait to be a part of a team that is so passionate about the patients in which we care so much about.”

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