Posted on Jul 13, 2022

For our July 13 meeting, Dr. Antonino Barbera introduced us to the benefits of table tennis (ping pong) in countering and even reversing the effects of various neurodegenerative conditions (e.g., Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, Mild Cognitive Impairment) and Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder in kids. 

Dr. Barbera started with a description of his personal experience with Multiple Sclerosis, starting with a series of temporary anomalous symptoms, ultimately becoming sufficiently common that he had to quit his life-long career in Obstetrics and Gynecology.  One of the symptoms that he described was the MS Hug, an apparent squeezing of the torso that might last for a short time or continue all day. He commented that this MS Hug feels like an elephant seating on his chest 24 hours per day. This was not helped by the disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic.  Then he accidentally discovered that, while he was playing ping-pong, the elephant stayed in the chair and did not bother him.  He wondered, if ping-pong were beneficial to him, might it also be beneficial to others? 
Fitting his experience into a more general medical/aging framework, he started by giving a brief description of the bodily changes involved in Multiple Sclerosis: damage to the myelin, the protective layer that surrounds nerve fibers like insulation, leading to interruption to communication signals to and from the brain, resulting in unpredictable symptoms. Going back to the aging process in general, all bodily systems gradually decline starting around age 30. It is then when we start experiencing difficulty in learning something new, difficulty in multi-tasking, difficulty in remembering names and numbers.  Studies show that this brain aging can be slowed by regular physical activity, being socially active, engaging in intellectually stimulating activities, learning a new instrument or a new language, managing stress, eating a healthful diet, sleeping well.  These sorts of activities may lead to neurogenesis (making of new cells in the brain) and neuroplasticity (making new networks in the brain – “re-wiring” the brain).  Challenging the brain slows the process of brain aging. 
He has found that, of the sport activities in which we might engage, table tennis (ping pong) is the best for challenging the brain.  He points out that, compared with sports like tennis or pickle ball, ping pong requires faster reactions and yet requires less in the way of preparation or expense.  He presented several examples where individuals with some of these issues (e.g., multiple sclerosis) have improved in conjunction with playing this sport. 
So he has created a 501(c)(3) organization called “Table Tennis Connections”  ( to foster interest and participation in the sport, to raise awareness of the benefits, to allow easy access to table tennis as a potentially valuable therapeutic approach, and to bring those benefits to senior-living communities in the Front-Range area.  Since ping pong helps to improve reflexes, hand-eye coordination, blood flow to the brain, balance, and flexibility, develops mental acuity, and stimulates cardiovascular health, joint health, and burning of calories, it is good for everyone, not just those with neurodegenerative conditions.  In conjunction with this organization, he has developed the NeuroPongTM Program, a 12-week program, three sessions per week, that includes two six-week table tennis sessions with clinical assessment at the beginning, another between the two six-week sessions, and a final one at the end. 
Is the size of the ball different from “normal” ping pong?  No, not in the US. An English non-profit organization that uses ping pong in people with Alzheimer, uses balls of bigger sizes. He also mentioned that some individuals with neurodegenerative conditions demonstrate better coordination with the ball when it is being used against a contrasting background, for example the color of the ping-pong table. 
What about pickle ball or other racket sports?  Any racket sport is good, but table tennis is best because it is faster and requires quicker action on the part of the participant. 
Are there any improvements in cognition?  Dr. Barbera said that participation in the sport leads to neurological progress over all.