Rates of dementia among people with Parkinson’s disease are higher than the general population, with 25 to 40 percent of patients expected to eventually develop dementia. Now the University of Florida has received a $2.1 million National Institutes of Health grant to use brain imaging to better understand different types of cognitive difficulties that affect patients with Parkinson’s.
“Individuals with Parkinson’s disease often develop slower thinking speed. This is the cognitive hallmark of Parkinson’s disease,” said Catherine Price, Ph.D., the grant’s lead investigator and an associate professor in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of clinical and health psychology. “Slower thinking speed makes it difficult to quickly remember information. It also becomes more challenging to rapidly pull information from memory. They can still learn very well, it just takes longer.”
In neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, nerve cells in the brain or nervous system gradually lose function and die. Because neurodegenerative diseases typically develop later in life, rates are expected to increase over the next several years as the baby boom generation ages.
On the basis of previous research and clinical observations, Price and her colleagues propose that patients with Parkinson’s disease will show one of three cognitive patterns. The first involves problems with thinking and processing speed. The second involves memory problems, but no processing speed deficits. The third involves no cognitive problems.
In the new study the researchers will determine a “brain profile” for the three cognitive patterns by examining connections in participants’ gray matter and in their white matter, the tissue through which messages travel across the brain.
“If we can determine a patient’s cognitive profiles at time of testing, we may actually be able to foreshadow the type of impairment, if any, they will have down the road,” Price said. “We will be able to look at whether the cognitive profile changes over time.”
The information could also be applied to treatment plans, Price said.
“Knowing a person’s cognitive and brain anatomical profiles will allow us to be more successful tailoring behavioral and medical interventions to the patient,” she said.
Price is one of several neuroscience researchers in the College of Public Health and Health Professions and across the University of Florida campus who are working to understand the structure and function of the brain with a goal of developing new therapies for brain disorders. Neuroscience is one of several focus areas of the UF Rising to National Preeminence initiative. UF has committed $2.2 million to hiring new faculty members with expertise in strategic neuroscience areas to complement the university’s existing research strengths.
At the national level, President Obama last year announced the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. The decade-long initiative was launched with $100 million in research funding to help researchers discover new ways to treat, cure and prevent brain disorders.