Doctor came up with idea for study after noticing improvement in sufferer from disease during tandem ride

New research from the United States suggests that people suffering from Parkinson's Disease may be able to mitigate their symptoms through “forced” pedalling of a bicycle.

Dr Jay Alberts, a neuroscientist at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Institute in Ohio was alerted to the possibility of cycling helping patients offset some of the impact of the condition after he took part in the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, better known by its acronym, RAGBRAI.

His companion on the tandem he rode during the seven-day event was a woman who suffers from Parkinson’s, symptoms of which include uncontrolled shaking, rigidness and slowness of movement. Afterwards, Dr Alberts noticed an improvement in her condition, reports Channel 4 News.

"The finding was serendipitous," commented Dr Alberts. "I was pedalling faster than her, which forced her to pedal faster. She had improvements in her upper extremity function, so we started to look at the possible mechanism behind this improved function."

His observations led him to form a team of scientists to conduct a wider study about the effect of cycling on 26 Parkinson’s patients, having them ride on exercise bikes, some at their own pace, others made to ride outside their comfort zone due to electric motors fitted to the bikes.

The study, result of which are being presented today at the Radiological Society of North America’s annual conference in Chicago, saw the patients ride the bikes three times a week over a two-month period.

Results were analysed with the help of a technique called functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI), which gauges changes in the flow of blood to identify the functional connectivity of different part of the brain.

Dr Alberts and his team found increased connectivity between parts of the brain linked to Parkinson’s, and most significantly, forcing cyclists to pedal faster led to better balance and co-ordination.

The study is being followed up by seeing how sufferers cope with exercise bikes at home, and researchers are also looking into whether other sports including swimming and rowing may produce similar results.

Chintan Shah, a researcher at the Cleveland Clinic, said: "The results show that forced-rate bicycle exercise is an effective, low-cost therapy for Parkinson's disease."

Dr Kieran Breen, director of research and innovation at the Parkinson's UK charity, told Channel 4 News: "This new research adds to the growing body of knowledge which suggests that cycling may be beneficial for people with Parkinson's.

"In this new study, the researchers found that people who cycle vigorously three times a week, saw improvements in their co-ordination and balance - areas which suffer badly once Parkinson's begins to advance.

"Although this sounds like a simple way to reduce some of the symptoms of Parkinson's, it is important to remember that the level of exercise undertaken by those in this study was high. This level of activity would simply be beyond the physical capabilities of some people living with the condition."

"While it is too soon to encourage people with Parkinson's to get on their bikes three times a week on the basis of this study, we do know that exercise can be beneficial.

"A regular exercise routine can help those with the condition to not only improve their general fitness but can also help to improve movement and balance as well as other symptoms of the condition such as anxiety and depression."

Parkinson’s UKs says that 1 person in 500 – equivalent to 127,000 British people – have Parkinson’s.

Typically, the condition affects people aged 50 or above, although 1 in 20 people are aged under 40 when diagnosed – regular road.cc users will know that 28-year-old Keith McRae, who goes by the name GKam84 on the site, has been diagnosed with the condition and is attempting to raise funds for a trike so he can keep cycling.

That final point is worth noting - while the US study suggests that cycling may play a role in fighting the condition, the balance problems associated with Parkinson's mean that a standard bicycle is out of the question, also underlined by the fact that the sufferer who led Dr Alberts to experience his 'eureka' moment was riding tandem with him, and that the study itself was carried out on static exercise bikes.

According to Parkinson's UK:

Parkinson's is a progressive neurological condition.

People with Parkinson's don't have enough of a chemical called dopamine because specific nerve cells inside their brain have died. It is not known why these cells die.

Without dopamine people can find that their movements become slower so it takes longer to do things. This can make everyday activities, such as eating, getting dressed, or using a phone or computer, difficult or frustrating.

The 3 main symptoms of Parkinson's are tremor, muscle stiffness and slowness of movement. But not everyone will experience all of these.

As well as the symptoms that affect movement, people with Parkinson's can find that other issues, such as tiredness, pain, depression and constipation, can have an impact on their day-to-day lives.

Parkinson's doesn't directly cause people to die, but symptoms do get worse over time.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.