Loughborough University
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Mucosal immune and physiological responses to exercise in wheelchair athletes

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posted on 2012-11-15, 14:01 authored by Christof A. Leicht
Apart from motor and sensory function loss, an injury to the spinal cord can cause sympathetic dysfunction, which has been shown to affect immune responses. In this thesis, data from five experimental studies have been collected to compare physiological and psychophysiological exercise responses between wheelchair athlete subgroups with different disabilities (tetraplegic, paraplegic, and non-spinal cord-injured). In two preparatory studies, physiological exercise responses to exhaustive (Chapter 4) and submaximal exercise (Chapter 5) were investigated in all three disability subgroups. Whilst reliability measures for peak oxygen uptake (VO2peak) were in a range observed previously in able-bodied athletes, the variation in tetraplegic athletes was larger when expressed relative to their VO2peak, questioning the use of this variable to track small changes in aerobic capacity in athletic populations. Submaximal physiological and psychophysiological exercise responses were found to be similar between disability subgroups when expressed as a percentage of VO2peak, justifying the protocol used in the laboratory study on mucosal immune function, which was based on the same percentages of VO2peak for all disability subgroups. The most extensive study of this thesis, detailed in Chapter 6, showed that single laboratory-controlled 60-min exercise sessions increase both salivary secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA), a marker of mucosal immunity, and α-amylase, a marker of sympathetic activation in all three disability subgroups. However, the impaired sympathetic nervous system in tetraplegic athletes seemed to influence the fine-tuning of their sIgA response when compared with paraplegic and non-spinal cord-injured athletes, resulting in a larger exercise-induced increase of sIgA secretion rate when compared to paraplegic and non-spinal cord-injured athletes. Based on these results, the study detailed in Chapter 7 investigated sIgA responses in tetraplegic athletes during wheelchair rugby court training. Despite their disability, these athletes showed responses thought to be governed by the sympathetic nervous system, such as reductions of saliva flow rate as a result of strenuous exercise. Similarly, the responses observed in Chapter 8 imply a comparable trend of chronic sIgA exercise responses in tetraplegic athletes as found in the able-bodied population, namely a decrease in sIgA secretion rate during periods of heavy training. These are the first studies in wheelchair athlete populations to investigate mucosal immune responses. Interestingly, despite the disruption of their sympathetic nervous system, some responses in tetraplegic athletes are comparable with findings in able-bodied populations. It is possible that due to their highly trained nature, these tetraplegic individuals are able to compensate for their loss of central sympathetic innervation. This may be by way of adapted spinal reflex or parasympathetic nervous system activity, or increased sensitivity of receptors involved in autonomic pathways. Therefore, sympathetic nervous function in tetraplegic athletes may be qualitatively altered, but in parts still be functional.



  • Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences


© Christof Leicht

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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