Researchers say brain games may help Parkinson's patients

Each year, about 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

Tremors and poor balance often plague these patients, but there is another, lesser-known problem that a new study aims to help.

Stan, Vanessa and Joe all have Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors and movement problems, but many don't know that it also affects memory in about 30% of patients.

"The type of memory affected in Parkinson's disease is very different than in Alzheimer's disease," said Karen Anderson, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Parkinson's patients have trouble multi-tasking and using information they have learned. That is where treadmills and computers can help.

Researchers are studying whether three sessions per week of exercise and brain games will help improve memory in Parkinson's patients. The idea is to boost a chemical in the brain known as BDNF.

"We're hoping through exercise to stimulate production of BDNF, which may cause brain cells to function better or even start to renew themselves," said Dr. Anderson.

Joe has been walking for two weeks. A special harness holds him in place, so he doesn't fall, while trained exercise physiologists record his progress.

"I'm feeling it," he said.

Vanessa McLean plays the memory games.

"You have to be really quick to get the birds and the flowers together," she said.

Stan Markowitz does both exercise and brain games. He is hoping the combination will help his worsening memory.

"I'll start a sentence, and there's a word that I need, and I can't figure it out," said Markowitz.

If it works, it will be a simple way to make living with this complicated disease a little easier.

The patients are divided into three groups: those who only exercise, those who only use the computer games, and only and those who do both.

Researchers conduct memory assessments at the beginning of the study and three months after the study.

They are still enrolling patients in this four-year trial.


PARKINSON'S & MEMORY: In addition to the motor symptoms in Parkinson's disease, there are also cognitive symptoms which may be evident even in the early stages of the disease. These may include deficits in executive function (especially planning and attention), set-shifting (ability to alternate between two or more tasks), and memory. Approximately 25%-30% of Parkinson's patients develop dementia. It is not yet known whether dementia is actually a symptom of Parkinson's disease or whether patients with Parkinson's disease are for some reason also at higher risk for dementia. A large number of Parkinson's patients also experience psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, or sleep disorders.
Because Parkinson's disease damages neurons in the substantia nigra which produce dopamine, treatment usually involves drugs which work to counteract this shortage of dopamine. Parkinson's patients may benefit from treatment with several kinds of drugs simultaneously. These drugs can often combat the motor symptoms for a long time, but as the disease progresses and the substantia nigra continues to degrade, the drugs eventually become less effective.
Some patients whose motor symptoms cannot be controlled by medication undergo brain surgery to destroy portions of the brain regions responsible for some of the motor symptoms in Parkinson's disease, or benefit from deep brain stimulation (DBS) -- using thin wires to stimulate electrical activity in the brain. There has also been controversial research involving implantation of cells from aborted fetuses into the brains of Parkinson's patients in an attempt to regrow neurons in the substantia nigra; more recently, scientists are exploring the possibility of using stem cells isolated from healthy adults or grown in the laboratory. As yet, this work is still highly experimental. (Source:
UNIVERSITY OF MARLYAND STUDY: Researchers are looking to study the benefits of exercise for fitness, walking, balance, and memory. They are still enrolling participants, and those eligible for the study are people who have been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and have mild to moderate gait or balance difficulty. The study is being conducted at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

For More Information, Contact:

Karen Robinson
University Of Maryland medical Center
(410) 706-7590

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