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Researchers at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Impacting MS Through Exercise Neuroscience

The newest round of pilot research projects funded by the Illinois State Lottery was recently announced. The recipients include researchers at the University of Illinois, where a dedicated group of researchers and students is dedicated to changing lives through exercise. Read more below.

Finding a Focus

As he tells it, Dr. Rob Motl, didn’t set out to study multiple sclerosis. Motl, who is currently associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, began his graduate studies with a focus on applied, high-end exercise physiology, working almost exclusively with elite athletes. After putting in significant time studying the effects of exercise on the central nervous system, he found a connection between his studies and research into multiple sclerosis.

“We found that exercise could change the way the spinal cord works, decreasing reflexes and spasticity,” says Motl. “I saw that the drugs treating multiple sclerosis used the same pathway, and so we wrote a grant to the National MS Society to study exercise effects on spinal plasticity in people living with MS. We were awarded the funds, and we haven’t looked back.”    

This first study took place in 2003, and it was hugely successful for both the researchers and the participants. As a result of this study, Motl came to several important conclusions.

“First, only a handful of people, at best, were doing research on exercise and MS,” he says. “Secondly, the people that came into our lab to participate, they thought it was the greatest thing ever. With these two things in mind, it was an easy decision to make multiple sclerosis the focus of my research.”


The Lab

This intense commitment led to the establishment of the Exercise Neuroscience Research Laboratory (ENRL) which has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding. The lab itself, located in Freer Hall on the U of I campus, covers 2,500 square feet with dedicated offices for researchers and students, a conference room, private patient screening rooms, and designated spaces for exercise testing and training. The lab equipment is all state-of-the-art, and includes a 26-foot electronic walkway used to test and analyze gait. Currently, five PhD students, one post-doctorate research associate, 10 undergraduates, and a full-time research coordinator call ENRL home.

At any given time, anywhere from a handful to a dozen research projects are taking place at ENRL. Most recently, ENRL was awarded four, year-long pilot research grants from the Illinois Lottery Research Fund, which utilizes proceeds from a scratch off ticket to fund MS research statewide. One such project is a unique home-based exercise study led by Dr. Lara Pilutti, assistant professor of Kinesiology and Community Health, which looks at strength, aerobic fitness, and cardiovascular function to see how those measurements can be affected by exercise training.

“Most importantly, this is home-based, which is really great for the participants because they don’t need to come in here very often,” explains Pilutti. “Participants come into the lab, they learn the exercises, and we teach them a few strategies to maintain their routine and adapt it to their lifestyles.”

Seeing Results

One research study participant, David Oost of Bloomington, has been a fixture at ENRL since 2004, having participated in at least six published studies. He has personally seen positive results, from both a physical and mental standpoint, through his participation in the exercise programs.

“Three years ago I walked with a cane and now I don’t,” Oost explains. “My ability to walk has improved greatly, my endurance has increased, and my desire to continue working out has been ignited. Even the cognitive tasks that the tests require have become easier, less frustrating, and fun.”

Oost credits a large part of his improvement to the personal attention given to every study participant. He notes that the graduate students work very closely with him throughout the projects, beyond what is required. In return, he is glad to help them advance their education, especially considering that the degree they are working toward will most likely lead to more MS research, making his decision to participate in future studies an easy one.  

“It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “The tests help you fight against disease progression, you get to help graduate students earn their PhD so they can continue their research, you gain confidence in yourself, and most importantly, you are taking part in finding a solution. That’s a big deal.”


A Different Kind of Research

As Oost points out, the graduate students play a significant role in the success of ENRL. The lab draws students from a wide variety of backgrounds, and this diversity lends itself to their breadth of MS research. Post-doctorate researcher Yvonne Learmonth, a native of Scotland with a background in physical therapy, came to the ENRL as a result of its reputation and diverse nature of study available.

“Where I’m from, there’s a high prevalence of MS, equal to that of Illinois,” says Learmonth. “It’s often diagnosed in women around my age, meaning it could potentially affect close friends and relatives. I know that good rehabilitation and exercise can have positive effects, but I want to expand this knowledge and benefit everyone that I can.”

First year PhD student Dominique Hopkins, a native of Chicago, chose to focus on specific populations of people living with MS. Hopkins started working with the ENRL team as an undergraduate, and it was the culture of the lab that enticed her to continue on as a graduate student.

“For a long time, MS was seen as a disease mainly seen in Caucasian women, and treatments were largely developed for this demographic,” says Hopkins. “But recent literature has shown that African Americans often experience a more severe disease course. I want to know about the differences in their experience, and how can we tailor interventions to that population.”

Elizabeth Hubbard, a first year PhD student, is convinced that the collaborative nature of the ENRL is what sets it apart from other research programs.

“I can say that this atmosphere is totally different than where I got my Master’s,” says Hubbard, who studied in Florida before coming to U of I. “For that, it was very much a ‘this is my project, I’ll do it by myself alone in this room,’ situation. Here, everyone is involved with everything – we’re all working towards the same goal.”

Get Involved

The goal — to slow, stop, and reverse the life-altering effects of multiple sclerosis — remains ongoing, with collaborative efforts and advances in research and treatments better now than ever before, explains Motl.

“To me, if there’s ever been a good time to be diagnosed with MS, probably right now is the best time,” he says. “I think most of our disease modifying therapies are being optimized and we’re coming out with really really good disease modifying therapies, and the scientific information on the benefits of exercise training and how that has to be reintegrated into the rehabilitation of someone’s function and the maintenance of someone’s long term function has never been better.”

To participate in ENRL’s home-based study or any other Univ. of Illinois research studies, contact Julia Balto at 217-244-1191 or 1-888-796-7966 or

For more information about statewide MS research studies in which you can get involved, visit or call the Information Resource Center at 1.800.344.4867.

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