Background: Exercise preconditioning (EP+) has been widely accepted as a being of safe and effective preventive measure for stroke. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether EP+ improves outcomes of ischaemic stroke by promoting neuronal and glial expression of heat shock protein (HSP) 20. Materials and methods: Adult male Sprague-Dawley rats (288 in number) were used to investigate the contribution of HSP20-containing neurons and HSP20-containing glial cells in the exercise-mediated neuroprotection in the stroke condition using middle cerebral artery occlusion. Results: Exercise preconditioning, in addition to increasing the numbers of both the HSP20-containg neurons (88 ± 8 vs. 43 ± 4; n = 8 each group; P < 0·05) and the HSP20-containg astrocytes (102 ± 10 vs. 56 ± 5; n = 8; P < 0·05) significantly attenuated stroke-induced brain infarct (140 ± 9 vs. 341 ± 20 mm3; n = 8 per group; P < 0·01), neuronal apoptosis (20 ± 5 vs. 87 ± 7; n = 8 per group; n = 8; P < 0·01), glial apoptosis (29 ± 5 vs. 101 ± 4; n = 8; P < 0·01), and neurological deficits (6·6 ± 0·3 vs. 11·7 ± 0·8; n = 8 per group; P < 0·01). Reducing the numbers of both HSP20-containing neurons and HSP20-contaiing glia by intracerebral injection of pSUPER small interfering RNAι expressing HSP20 significantly reversed the beneficial effects of EP+ in attenuating stroke-induced cerebral infarct, neuronal and glial apoptosis, and neurological deficits. Conclusions: The numbers of both the HSP20-containing neurons and the HSP20-containing glia inversely correlated with the outcomes of ischaemic stroke. In addition, preischaemic treadmill exercise improves outcomes of ischaemic stroke by increasing the numbers of both the HSP20-containing neurons and the HSP20-containing glia.
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