A new research effort uses exercise and computerized memory training to see if the activities may prevent memory changes among people with Parkinson’s disease.
Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Baltimore VA Medical Center are targeting the type of memory known as “executive function. This is the form of memory we use to take in information and use it in a new way.
Many Parkinson’s patients develop problems with executive function, which can prevent them from working and may eventually require a caregiver to take over more of the complex cognitive tasks of daily living.
“Studies of normal aging show that memory and executive function can be improved with exercise, such as walking several days a week,” explains Karen Anderson, M.D., principal investigator and an assistant professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
She adds, “We want to see if exercise can slow or reverse some of these memory changes in Parkinson’s patients. We will also investigate whether a computer game designed to improve executive function may make a difference as well.
“The other question is, what happens when you put the two interventions together – if there is memory improvement, will it be even better than with one of the interventions? Or is it more efficient to do just one or the other? We really do not know.”
Researchers plan to enroll about 90 patients who will be divided randomly into three groups: exercisers walking on a treadmill, memory game players and those doing both exercise and memory games. Participants in each group will receive a memory assessment at the beginning of the study.
They will come in three times a week for their training for three months and will be then be tested again. Three months after that, the researchers will test the participants again to see if there may be longer term benefits to the training.
An important part of the methodology involves increasing the challenge as the participant improves – both physically on the treadmill and cognitively by the memory game.
The memory training works like a video game with players advancing to a higher level of difficulty. For the exercisers, trainers may increase the speed or slope of the treadmill to make it more aerobically challenging.
“This new study builds on our experience from a previous study of exercise for gait and mobility in Parkinson’s disease.
Since both motor function and cognitive function are important for mobility and performance of daily activities, this new study will investigate the individual and combined effects of treadmill training and cognitive training,” explains Lisa Shulman, M.D., co-investigator and professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“Parkinson’s patients are eager to know if there is anything they can do to give them greater control over their condition. Mobility and memory are the two key components to preserve independence. If these treatment strategies are found to be effective, we will learn important new approaches to delaying disability,” says Dr. Shulman.
The Parkinson study builds on the success of using repetitive motion and walking training/rehab for individuals who have suffered a stroke.
Co-investigator Richard Macko, M.D., says, “With stroke patients, we have seen that the consistent, repetitive motion of walking may help the brain to develop new connections to compensate for the damaged ones.
“This new Parkinson’s study takes the concept of exercise training for neurology patients in a new direction. We will be interested to see if this consistent training will produce benefits to memory.”