Parkinson’s disease (PD) affects about 1% of the population over the age of 60 and 5% of those age 85 and up. Up to a million Americans suffer from this disorder, which unfortunately worsens over time.

While many think of Parkinson’s disease as a debilitating movement disorder affecting motor skills, muscle coordination, and balance, did you know that it can result in several non-movement symptoms such as thinking and memory problems, ranging from mild to severe?

Caused by the loss of dopamine-producing neurons in the brain, cognitive difficulties and dementia affect approximately 40% of people with Parkinson’s.

Disease and Movement Disorders, Department of Neurological Sciences at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, IL says, “It is now recognized that Parkinson’s disease (PD) is much more than a motor disorder. Tremor, slowness, stiffness, and walking trouble are only part of the picture. Non-motor symptoms in Parkinson’s disease are common and affect cognition, behavior, sleep, autonomic function, and sensory function. Studies of Parkinson’s disease patients followed over many years reveal that non-motor symptoms become even more important as Parkinson’s disease advances. Increased recognition and improved treatments for these non-motor symptoms are greatly needed.”Jennifer G. Goldman, MD, MS, Assistant Professor, Section of Parkinson’s

How Memory Can Be Affected By Parkinson’s Disease

Cognition is a general term that refers to the mental abilities that we use to process information and apply knowledge. These processes allow us to perform daily functions such as paying attention and problem- solving. Memory is typically considered a large focal point in the study of cognition, as it controls so much of our life and basic activities.

Memory can be classified into different processes and types, and include:

  • Immediate:  Seconds-minutes
  • Short-term:  Minutes-days
  • Long-term:  Days-years
  • Declarative:  Facts, concepts, or events
  • Procedural:  How to do certain tasks like tie our shoes or brush our teeth
  • Working:  Process of temporarily storing information in one’s mind and manipulating it over a short period (i.e. mental arithmetic)

Dr. Goldman says that Parkinson’s sufferers may have difficulty recalling information. She says, “With PD, people frequently recall information more readily when given cues or choices. This helps the person to retrieve information from the brain’s memory storage. Long-term memory function typically remains intact in PD.”

According to Johns Hopkins Universit School of Medicine, experts don’t have a definitive understanding of how or why dementia or memory impairment may result from Parkinson’s Disease, however, it’s apparent that problems with cognitive function are linked to changes in the brain that cause problems with movement.

It’s important to note that not all Parkinson’s Disease sufferers experience memory impairment, but mobility issues coupled with a higher risk of cognitive decline have the power to dramatically impact the daily functioning of Parkinson’s patients.

“We now recognize that mild cognitive changes may be present at the time of Parkinson’s disease diagnosis or even early in the course of PD. They may or may not be noticeable to the person. They may or may not affect work or activities, depending on the demands of specific tasks and work situations,” states Dr. Goldman.

Seeking Treatment For Memory Impairment In PD Patients

Managing cognitive impairment as a result of PD will vary depending on the timing and degree of cognitive dysfunction. Physicians will assess each situation and treatment will differ should memory issues develop abruptly or over time.

Here are a few common ways memory is impaired as a result of Parkinson’s disease is managed:

  • Despite being different diseases, medications used to treat dementia in PD have been based on FDA-approved treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. The medications work on the cholinergic system in the brain (a neurochemical involved in attention and memory)
  • Non-medication strategies can help patients with cognitive tasks, communication, and daily activities with the goal of improving the quality of life and addressing safety concerns. Routines, alarms, checklists, and daily planners can help manage executive functions and day-to-day activities
  • Mental “exercise” is important for cognition in PD and can include partaking in brain-enhancing activities such as puzzles, playing cards or other games, reading a book, going to lectures or concerts, or learning a new activity/hobby
  • High-intensity physical movement and exercise delays the progression of Parkinson’s and can sometimes prevent falls and improve balance

ABS Supports Parkinson’s Research Project

In an effort to learn more about the memory impairment aspect of Parkinson’s, the American Brain Society is proud to announce our support Dr. Gregory Pontone’s research project being conducted at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Our participation in this project showcases our steadfast commitment and support for the scientific research community who are working tirelessly toward finding treatments and cures for this brain disorder and many others.

J. A. Boulton, Founder

Dr. Pontone

The goal of Dr. Pontone’s research is to gain a deeper understanding of how Parkinson’s disease injures a vital part of the brain called the hippocampus, which raises the risk for memory impairment.

His team believes that returning the hippocampus to a normal level of activation will restore memory with the potential of slowing or preventing the progression to dementia.

If successful, this would be the first treatment for mild cognitive impairment in Parkinson’s disease and could lead to new treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders.

Dr. Pontone and his research team will study adults age 65 or older with advanced techniques in functional magnetic imaging (fMRI), focusing on the non-motor aspects of Parkinson’s disease and related disorders.

The research team will seek further funding to continue the project, which will enable them to enroll additional participants in their study, conduct further testing on the effects of hippocampal hyperactivity and perform a pilot trial of an experimental treatment.

Gregory Pontone, M.D., M.H.S. is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

Dr. Pontone has extensive experience in geriatric psychiatry and movement disorders focusing on Parkinson’s disease. He is an Attending Psychiatrist in the Geriatric and Neuropsychiatry division where he treats patients with neurodegenerative disorders (including Parkinson’s disease and related disorders, Alzheimer’s dementia), and behavioral disturbances resulting from these diseases.

Make a Donation, Make a Difference

It is through research projects like that of Dr. Pontone that we seek to gain a deeper understanding of this debilitating disorder and how it affects so many aspects of the body AND mind.

Learn more about this breakthrough Parkinson’s Disease research project and how you can support the work being done to bring us closer to a cure.


United Brain Association
Johns Hopkins Medicine
American Parkinson Disease Association

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