Skip to main content

Preventing Muscle Atrophy? Just Add Heat

When he was in fifth grade, Boston Andersen (‘22) was diagnosed with Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, a condition that prevents blood from reaching the hip bone, causing the bone to die. As a kid who enjoyed being physically active, having a disease that kept him on crutches for a year was devastating.

A headshot of Boston wearing a white button up shirt with a black tie. He has spiked blond hair and brown eyes.
Boston Andersen has used his experiences as a child to contribute to research that could be life-changing for others. Graduating this BYU fall semester, Andersen has already made great accomplishments.
Photo by Boston Andersen

Andersen’s experience with Legg-Calve-Perthes and his interest in research led him to sign up for exercise science professor Robert Hyldahl’s lab. Here, Andersen joined students working to prevent muscle atrophy in patients who were unable to exercise. Muscle atrophy is the thinning of muscle tissue when the muscles aren’t being used enough.

In his last semester at BYU, Andersen won a College Undergraduate Research Award for his research in the effects of heat therapy on the muscles. The award provides up to $3,000 for mentored research.

The research will lead to “some type of intervention that can positively affect the musculoskeletal system,” Andersen says. “This really interested me compared to the other labs I had looked into.”

Andersen and his lab hypothesized that heat treatment over a six-week intervention period would lead to increased mitochondrial content and capillarity, the ability for oxygen to be exchanged between blood and muscle cells within skeletal muscle. They predicted this would happen at a lesser extent with the heat treatment group than the exercise group.

Participants came to the lab three times a week for two-hour sessions where a diathermy machine was placed on their leg. A diathermy machine stimulates muscles by “deep heating” the tissue and muscles. The lab’s focus group administered heat therapy through the diathermy treatment for six weeks. Their control group was the placebo group and was administered diathermy treatment without the heat actually coming through.

Hyldahl performed biopsies on the treated muscles at the beginning of the study, three weeks into the treatment and then again at the end of six weeks. After the samples were collected, Andersen used immunohistochemistry to analyze the cellular factors of each sample. Immunohistochemistry is a method that uses antibodies to check for certain markers in a tissue sample, according to the National Cancer Institute.

At the conclusion of the six-week treatment, new participants were selected for a third group. This group exercised to test Andersen’s hypothesis. After comparing the changes among the heat therapy group, placebo group, and the group that exercised, it was concluded that no significant change occurred in the muscle satellite cell content. Andersen’s hypothesis was incorrect.

Though the changes in muscle atrophy weren’t notable, Andersen has ideas for the future of heat therapy research, including expanding the demographics. “I think if we were to use a group like the elderly, or just older people in general, the changes between the heat, placebo, and exercise groups would be more profound,” Andersen explains.

Andersen is graduating from BYU this fall with a degree in exercise sciences. He is currently in the process of applying to medical schools.