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Memory Function and Parkinson’s Disease

Medically reviewed by Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Written by Brooke Dulka, Ph.D.
Updated on October 18, 2021

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is more than a disorder of movement and motor function. Cognitive decline is also a component of PD for many people. Cognition is the umbrella term for thinking, knowing, remembering, problem-solving, and executive function. Memory is therefore a critical part of cognition, and memory problems are generally what people think of when they hear about cognitive decline. Research has shown that people with PD often experience memory problems. These memory problems can cause great distress for those with PD and their caregivers. Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between memory and PD.

How Does Memory Work?

Memory is the process of storing and remembering a wide variety of information. The hippocampus is believed to be the brain region responsible for memory processes. The hippocampal region is a small curved structure that lies deep within the brain’s temporal lobes (the parts of the brain on either side of the head, behind the ears). Over the years, research has shown that the hippocampus plays an important role in the three main stages of memory: formation, consolidation, and retrieval.

Memory Formation

Memory formation is the process of learning new information. In other words, it is when someone “acquires” new information. New information first enters into a person’s short-term memory. Short-term memories then need to be “consolidated” before they can enter into long-term memory.

Memory Consolidation

Memory consolidation is the process of turning short-term memories into long-term memories. The hippocampus plays a critical role in memory consolidation. Research shows that rehearsing (repeating information) helps to begin the consolidation processes, with sleep also playing an important role.

Memory Retrieval

Memory is thought to exist across a network of regions in the brain called the neocortex. The hippocampus is needed to retrieve (or recall) many forms of memory across this network, particularly episodic memory. (Episodic memories are those a person has about specific events in their past. This is different from semantic memory, which is general facts a person knows about the world.) Once a memory is retrieved, it enters into an active state in which the person remembers the information. This is why damage to the hippocampus can potentially impair memory.

What Kind of Memory Is Affected by Parkinson’s Disease?

Research shows that PD causes problems with memory retrieval, and a comprehensive review describes problems with episodic memory in particular. The hippocampus often shrinks (a process called atrophy) in cases of PD. Because the hippocampus is particularly important for episodic memory, PD affects memory retrieval of episodic memories.

Beyond the Hippocampus

But the hippocampus is not the whole story in memory and PD. The brain’s cortex (particularly the frontal cortex) also plays a role in memory, and this structure is also affected in PD. The basal ganglia, a dopamine-rich center of the brain, is also important for memory and affected by PD. Dopamine, in general, is important for learning processes. Dopamine production is affected by PD since the main disease process in PD is the death of dopamine cells. Even beyond the hippocampus, changes in memory function and PD go hand in hand.

Mild Cognitive Impairment, Dementia, and Parkinson’s Disease

Some people with PD develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI) during the course of their disease. MCI is the state between normal cognitive aging and the more serious state of decline commonly known as dementia. Eventually, MCI can progress to Alzheimer’s disease. When PD-related MCI progresses to dementia, it is known as Parkinson’s disease dementia (PDD). PDD is sometimes confused with a similar condition called dementia with Lewy bodies, although some researchers believe that they are the same disease.

In one study, 21 percent of individuals with PD met criteria for MCI, while an additional 17 percent had dementia. It is because of this strong link between PD and cognitive impairment that some researchers call PD a “complex brain disease” rather than a motor disorder.

Can Parkinson’s Disease Medications Cause Memory Problems?

A class of medication called anticholinergics is occasionally used in early PD to reduce symptoms like tremors and bladder spasms. These drugs, however, are not recommended for use in older adults (people over 70) due to their many side effects, including adverse effects on memory.

Interestingly, the medication of choice for PD, levodopa, has been scientifically shown to actually increase memory encoding processes by increasing dopamine release.

What Are People With Parkinson’s Disease Saying About Memory Function?

Many members of MyParkinsonsTeam experience “brain fog,” a common and frustrating symptom of PD. “Ah! The memory thing!” exclaimed one member. “When I tell a story, in mid-sentence my head and my mouth stop working. I just freeze.” Another member agreed: “I have similar symptoms. It can be annoying and embarrassing, but I just try to get on with it!”

Older members question whether their memory loss is related to PD or aging itself. “You don’t have to have PD to have memory problems,” said one older member. “Many of us who are getting on in age have senior moments.”

Memory tips and tricks are popular topics in the community. Many members have partners who help fill their word gaps. Others use dictionary and thesaurus apps. Getting support from others with PD is a great way to learn strategies for managing memory function. “Don’t be embarrassed to let people know you have a memory problem, or let it stop you from socializing,” said one member. “Be honest and upfront about the new you — most people will understand.”

Building a Community

MyParkinsonsTeam is the social network for people with Parkinson’s disease and their loved ones. On MyParkinsonsTeam, members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with Parkinson’s disease.

Are you living with Parkinson’s disease? Have you experienced cognitive decline? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyParkinsonsTeam.

References
  1. Cognitive Deficits in Parkinson’s Disease — Journal of Neurology
  2. Cognition — APA Dictionary of Psychology
  3. Evidence for Impaired Encoding and Retrieval Memory Profiles in Parkinson Disease — Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology
  4. What Memory Is For — Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  5. The Hippocampus — What Does It Do? — Behavioral and Neural Biology
  6. The Role of the Dorsal Hippocampus in the Acquisition and Retrieval of Context Memory Representations — The Journal of Neuroscience
  7. Memory Consolidation, Retrograde Amnesia, and the Hippocampal Complex — Current Opinion in Neurobiology
  8. Remembering Episodes: A Selective Role for the Hippocampus During Retrieval — Nature Neuroscience
  9. The Control of Short-Term Memory — Scientific American
  10. Memory Consolidation — Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology
  11. Rehearsal Initiates Systems Memory Consolidation, Sleep Makes It Last — Science Advances
  12. Sleep-Dependent Learning and Memory Consolidation — Neuron
  13. New Circuits for Old Memories: The Role of the Neocortex in Consolidation — Neuron
  14. Episodic Recognition Memory and the Hippocampus in Parkinson’s Disease: A Review — Cortex
  15. The Human Hippocampus and Spatial and Episodic Memory — Neuron
  16. Parkinson’s Disease Is Associated With Hippocampal Atrophy — Movement Disorders
  17. Frontal Cortex Contributes To Human Memory Formation — Nature Neuroscience
  18. Severe Alterations in Lipid Composition of Frontal Cortex Lipid Rafts From Parkinson’s Disease and Incidental Parkinson’s Disease — Molecular Medicine
  19. Anatomy of the Dopamine System in the Basal Ganglia — Trends in Neurosciences
  20. The Role of the Basal Ganglia in Learning and Memory: Neuropsychological Studies — Behavioural Brain Research
  21. Functional Changes of the Basal Ganglia Circuitry in Parkinson’s Disease — Progress in Neurobiology
  22. Dopamine and Memory: Modulation of the Persistence of Memory for Novel Hippocampal NMDA Receptor-Dependent Paired Associates — The Journal of Neuroscience
  23. Pathogenesis of Nigral Cell Death in Parkinson’s Disease — Parkinsonism and Related Disorders
  24. Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) — Mayo Clinic
  25. Dementia — Mayo Clinic
  26. Stages of Alzheimer’s — Alzheimer’s Association
  27. Parkinson’s Disease Dementia — Alzheimer’s Association
  28. Are Dementia With Lewy Bodies and Parkinson’s Disease Dementia the Same Disease? — BMC Medicine
  29. Defining Mild Cognitive Impairment in Parkinson’s Disease — Movement Disorders
  30. Parkinson’s Disease-Mild Cognitive Impairment (PD-MCI): A Useful Summary of Update Knowledge — Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience
  31. Medications — Parkinson’s Victoria
  32. Levodopa Increases Memory Encoding and Dopamine Release in the Striatum in the Elderly — Neurobiology of Aging
Updated on October 18, 2021
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Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Brooke Dulka, Ph.D. is a freelance science writer and editor. She received her doctoral training in biological psychology at the University of Tennessee. Learn more about her here.

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