Alexandru Hanganu, Post-Doctoral Fellow,
University of Calgary
Funded in partnership by Quebec Parkinson Network, Quebec Research Fund on Parkinson’s and Parkinson Society Canada
Basic Research Fellowship
$80,000 over two years

Evolution of mild cognitive impairment in patients with Parkinson’s disease

People with Parkinson’s disease are six times more likely to develop dementia than people in the general population – but researchers don’t know how and why dementia develops in some people with Parkinson’s and not others.

At the University of Montreal, post-doctoral fellow Alexandru Hanganu is trying to predict who will develop dementia by analyzing the structural changes in the brain of patients with Parkinson’s disease.
Hanganu and his colleagues will scan the brains of people with Parkinson’s who already have mild cognitive impairment, which often progresses to dementia. They will identify the regions in the brain that are affected, and will super-impose those sections on a mathematical model of the average brain. The researchers will then analyze the structural changes in the brains of those with cognition problems, compared to the brains of people who do not have any cognitive difficulties.

Hanganu and his colleagues will measure the affected structures in the brain, including connections between those areas and the links between cortical and subcortical regions. They will also assess shrinkage, volume and structural changes in the affected structures, which Hanganu hopes to associate with levels of cognitive ability. Using special software, Hanganu will try to predict who will eventually develop mild cognitive impairment, and to follow them over time to see if those predictions hold true.

Ultimately, Hanganu hopes his work will lead to a biomarker, or diagnostic tool that will identify the development of mild cognitive impairment in patients with Parkinson’s disease. That identification could then provide opportunities for people to intervene to improve cognition and avoid dementia, by engaging inintellectual stimulation. Reading, learning a language, and exercising may help stave off cognitive deficits.

“If certain regions of the brain are not used, they atrophy,” says Hanganu. “The more people increase their intelligence, the lower the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.”

If Hanganu can create a reliable biomarker, it could help doctors to diagnose Parkinson’s disease earlier and to predict who is likely at risk of cognitive problems.

“From a disease point of view, it’s easier to prevent the disease than to treat it,” Hanganu says.