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UF researchers to use brain imaging to look at dementia profiles in Parkinson’s patients

In an illustration of the brain of a person with Parkinson’s disease, white matter fibers connect to the caudate nuclei. Both are key structures involved in cognitive processing speed, and are a focus of a new UF investigation. Image data collected from a previous NIH-funded study led by Catherine Price, Ph.D. Illustration by Jared Tanner, Ph.D.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.

While Parkinson’s disease is commonly known as a movement disorder characterized by tremors and muscle rigidity, there is a growing recognition of an associated risk of cognitive problems.

“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 Professionsdepartment of clinical and health psychology, a part of UF Health. “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.”

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. Participants will include 120 people with Parkinson’s disease who will receive cognitive testing and brain imaging scans at baseline, and then be followed for cognitive changes over time. Results will be compared to those from age-matched participants who do not have Parkinson’s disease.

“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.

In addition to Price, UF research team members include Dawn Bowers, Ph.D., a professor of clinical and health psychology; Babette Brumback, Ph.D., an associate professor of biostatistics; Michael Okun, M.D., an associate professor of neurology and co-director of the UF Health Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration; Ilona Schmalfuss, M.D., an associate professor of radiology at UF and the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System; Mingzhou Ding, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering; and Thomas Mareci, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. The UF department of radiology is providing assistance with clinical brain scans.

The study is supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health under award number 1R01NS082386-01A1.

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Jill Pease

Public Relations Director, College of Public Health and Health Professions

Jill Pease is the public relations director for the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions. She is responsible for developing public relations and communications strategies to promote the... Read More

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