With Parkinson’s disease, can we teach old dogs new tricks?

The 'soft-wired' brain and other insight into improving cognition

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by Doc Irish |

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Do you ever notice how symptoms of Parkinson’s disease sometimes seem to start at the perimeter? You might first get a twitch in your pinkie finger or thumb, or it might be some other subtle problem, possibly starting on one side of your body or the other.

At the heart of it, no matter how your personal dynamics cascade from there, cognitive impairment is the ultimate bull’s-eye target of Parkinson’s disease. Sensory motor function keeps wobbling and nonmotor symptoms add to the spiral until eventually, cognition might be hit with collateral damage. Cognitive problems are varied and frequent in late-stage Parkinson’s.

They’re also probably the scariest thing for me to think about. I certainly don’t love dealing with the other stuff, but the thought of losing my cognitive functioning is pretty dark. My cognition and consciousness are what make me who I am. If I lose those, what’s left?

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So I’ve been looking for ways to try to tackle this looming threat. We know the train is coming down the tracks, and although we can’t stop it, can we at least slow it down? Here are some things I’ve found useful:

The takeaway from Merzenich’s book, based on his website, is that “the brain rewires itself across the lifespan, and … you can take control of that process to improve your life.” The site further explains, “In addition to fascinating descriptions of how your brain has produced your unique memories, skills, quirks, and emotions, Soft-Wired [sic] offers sound advice for evaluating your brain and gives clear, specific, scientifically proven guidance for how to rejuvenate, remodel, and reshape your brain to improve it at any age.”

In other words, our brains are not hard-wired. Even though we may have underlying Parkinson’s pathology, we can still rejuvenate, remodel, and reshape our brain connections.

This message was reinforced for me personally last week, when I had a full neuropsychological evaluation. It was somewhat frustrating to learn that my healthcare providers only offer cognitive diagnostic options and not therapeutic solutions. But they did unknowingly offer a bit of advice when they said, “Participants generally improve the exercise results when repeated.”

Maybe we can teach old dogs new tricks.

When we think about it, it’s just common sense. There’s usually no surprise when we get better after practicing something, old or new. Usually, the more intensely you practice, the better. That can be true for music, art, academics, sports, or physical conditioning.

Consider how heart healthcare has evolved over the years. In my last column, I mentioned spending the night in the hospital in 2019 — a year before my Parkinson’s diagnosis — because of heart attack concerns. After stress tests, my cardiologist recommended rigorous exercise and continuing with CrossFit training. Current cardiac rehab programs emphasize early and rigorous interventions, although in the not-too-distant past, staying in bed was the standard of care.

How great would it be to have a formal Parkinson’s rehab program, structured in a similar way? Can you imagine having access to (and reimbursement for) diet counseling, physical exercise, and cognitive training?

At least we can learn from one another and from some of the excellent resources out there. It may not be easy, but we can choose to strengthen ourselves. Keep the wheels turning. Learn some new tricks.

Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.


Daniel Novak avatar

Daniel Novak

Doc, I have done the full neuropsych tests seven times, including some for research and one for SS [so I do not have the results for all seven].

We learn "how to think" more than we memorize answers. That is brain learning that can be useful in solving many problems inside and outside of PD testing.

Alison Ericson avatar

Alison Ericson

Hi Doc,

I am a Pilates Instructor and I agree that physical exercise should be reimbursed by insurance when it is so beneficial to people with Parkinson’s.

Thank you for your informative and interesting article.

Kindest regards,

Alison Ericson

Frank Hainey avatar

Frank Hainey

I am 81 and have been dealing with Parkinson's for 9 years. Exercise is very important in slowing down the disease. I know Rock Steady Boxing has helped me greatly over the last 6 years. .
One thing I have learned is you can out think certain problems Parkinson's presents. I am now starting to have trouble walking and that is because I lean forward more due to Parkinson's But I find that just straightening up my posture before I start to walk really helps me to get around much better and my balance is improved a well.


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