Background: Stroke rehabilitation with different exercise paradigms has been investigated, but which one is more effective in facilitating motor recovery and up-regulating brain neurotrophic factor (BDNF) after brain ischemia would be interesting to clinicians and patients. Voluntary exercise, forced exercise, and involuntary muscle movement caused by functional electrical stimulation (FES) have been individually demonstrated effective as stroke rehabilitation intervention. The aim of this study was to investigate the effects of these three common interventions on brain BDNF changes and motor recovery levels using a rat ischemic stroke model.
Methodology/principal findings: One hundred and seventeen Sprague-Dawley rats were randomly distributed into four groups: Control (Con), Voluntary exercise of wheel running (V-Ex), Forced exercise of treadmill running (F-Ex), and Involuntary exercise of FES (I-Ex) with implanted electrodes placed in two hind limb muscles on the affected side to mimic gait-like walking pattern during stimulation. Ischemic stroke was induced in all rats with the middle cerebral artery occlusion/reperfusion model and fifty-seven rats had motor deficits after stroke. Twenty-four hours after reperfusion, rats were arranged to their intervention programs. De Ryck's behavioral test was conducted daily during the 7-day intervention as an evaluation tool of motor recovery. Serum corticosterone concentration and BDNF levels in the hippocampus, striatum, and cortex were measured after the rats were sacrificed. V-Ex had significantly better motor recovery in the behavioral test. V-Ex also had significantly higher hippocampal BDNF concentration than F-Ex and Con. F-Ex had significantly higher serum corticosterone level than other groups.
Conclusion/significance: Voluntary exercise is the most effective intervention in upregulating the hippocampal BDNF level, and facilitating motor recovery. Rats that exercised voluntarily also showed less corticosterone stress response than other groups. The results also suggested that the forced exercise group was the least preferred intervention with high stress, low brain BDNF levels and less motor recovery.