Cooling the brain's blood flow

Researchers hope to increase activity for MS patients

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From the moment he relocated from England to Allendale in 2008 to work in the Movement Science Department, Ross Sherman, associate professor of exercise science, has focused his research on environmental extremes, altered body temperature, and recovery strategies, so he is familiar with the benefits of various cooling techniques.

“Neck cooling in particular is one effective way to cool down athletes,” Sherman said. “Cooling devices are used by athletes who are practicing on a hot day, or who play in warmer climates.”

He added that these devices benefit race-car drivers and even those serving in the military.

Last year, a conversation with a friend got Sherman thinking about how neck cooling devices might also help people with multiple sclerosis. His friend was discouraged and shared how his mother couldn’t do many activities in the summer because of the heat.

Professors monitor patent with neck cooling device

Ross Sherman, associate professor of exercise science, and Shaunna Kelder, assistant professor of occupational therapy, monitor the core body and skin temperature of an MS patient.

“One of the common phenomena of MS is that those with the condition are more sensitive to heat,” Sherman explained. “They are more aware of a change in their core temperature and become easily fatigued.”

About 80 percent of people with MS also have Uhthoff’s syndrome, when changes in body temperature make a person’s existing MS symptoms worse. Symptoms include muscle weakness, numbing sensations and changes in vision, balance and coordination.

“It is crucial for those with MS to exercise in order to help their muscles and to have a better quality of life. But, adequate exercise becomes extremely difficult or not even possible when their body heats up,” he said.

No one has researched the use of readily available neck cooling devices on MS patients during exercise, Sherman said, studies have only been conducted before and after physical activity. “Using these devices before activity is beneficial, but the benefits don’t last very long. Using them after exercise is too late to help prolong activity,” he explained.

“It is crucial for those with MS to exercise in order to help their muscles and to have a better quality of life. But, adequate exercise becomes extremely difficult or not even possible when their body heats up.”

Ross Sherman, associate professor of movement science

Sherman is now working with other Grand Valley faculty members to test the effects of a neck cooling device on MS patients while they perform various tasks. This collaborative study is, in part, made possible by a $9,000 grant through Grand Valley’s Center for Scholarly and Creative Excellence.

Shaunna Kelder, assistant professor of occupational therapy, and Barbara Baker, associate professor of physical therapy, conduct testing in the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences on the Health Campus in downtown Grand Rapids.

Danita Vander Kodde, a physician assistant in neurology at Spectrum Health Medical group, screens and assesses MS patients for the study.

Sherman found a reasonably priced neck cooling collar online that he believes will be most effective. The design is lower in front and higher in the back, it is easy to freeze and stays cold for about 30 minutes, and most importantly, it is easy to fit and remove.

“The theory is that the device cools the blood in the carotid arteries, so just before the blood enters the brain it’s getting direct cooling applied to it,” he said.

Preliminary data showed MS patients are able to walk and perform a little better than they would without wearing the device. Sherman hopes that as more participants are recruited and complete the study, the data will show more consistent and greater benefits with neck cooling.

Testing is currently being performed in a normal temperature environment so the researchers expect results would be more profound in a heated room or in summer environmental conditions.

Sherman said there may be a secondary benefit when using the neck cooling device. People with MS can find it difficult to perform daily living activities, like cooking, cleaning, yard work, showering and even getting dressed when their core temperature rises.

“We don’t want to miss the bigger picture,” he said. “The psychological aspects may be more impactful. A person may not feel their fitness improve, but they’ll know they are able to do tasks they’ve never done before or haven’t been able to do in many years. If we can move that needle even a little, then it is a successful outcome.”