The Michael J. Fox Foundation has a good, basic introduction to the neurobiology of Parkinson’s disease. The brief animate video provides an overview of affected parts of the brain as well as the role that dopamine, a neurotransmitter – a chemical in the brain that allows brain cells to communicate with each other – plays in Parkinson’s disease. Click on the link below and then click on the video link titled PARKINSON’S AND THE BRAIN to learn more about how Parkinson’s disease affects the brain.
Understanding the relationship between brain (specifically subcortical structures) and cognitive processes is a field still in its infancy. The rise of structural and functional neuroimaging that started in the 1970s and really began to mature in the 1990s (with even greater changes and advancements being made today), led to the ability to measure the structure and function of various brain regions in vivo. This was and is important for neuropsychologists because it allowed them to more accurately assess the relationship between the brain and cognitive and behavioral functions.
Processing speed is a basic cognitive or brain processes that subserves many other higher-order cognitive domains. Among those higher domains is executive functioning, a somewhat broad construct that involves the organization of behaviors and behavior responses, selective attention of pertinent information and suppression of unnecessary information, and maintenance and shifting of cognitive sets. Thus, executive functioning is dependent on processing speed but processing speed is not dependent on executive functioning. If executive functioning is a car, processing speed is the engine. Having a faster or more powerful engine means that the car can go faster. More efficient engines allow the car to function at a higher level of efficiency. Thus, while processing speed and executive functions are distinct, they are related with processing speed as one of the basic cognitive processes driving executive functions.
As an example of the interaction between executive functions and processing speed in clinical applications we can look at the Stroop Color-Word task. A person who is not only able to read the words or name the colors quickly but also able to inhibit the undesired but automatic process (namely, word reading on the incongruent color-word task) will receive a higher score on the Stroop task. This would, in combination with other executive function tests, be evidence for intact or even good executive functioning.
Even on non-speeded executive tasks those with fast processing speed can benefit because they can sort through information more quickly and hopefully, efficiently – speed and efficiency are related but not exactly the same. However, not all tests of executive function rely on processing speed. A person, for example, could be slow on the Wisconsin Card Sort Test, yet not exhibit any “executive dysfunction” in that they could complete all the categories and not have an abnormal number of perseverative errors. This simply demonstrates that “executive functions” are diverse and varied.
As a basic process that is dependent on basic neuronal function and glial support, any sort of focal or diffuse injury to the brain can affect processing speed. An example of this is traumatic brain injury, which frequently results in diffuse axonal injury; this diffuse injury negatively affects cognitive processing speed. Any time the white matter is focally or grossly disrupted, processing speed is in danger of disruption itself. This disruption of white matter could be anything from axonal damage, loss of oligodendroglia (which form the myelin), or even low levels of neurotransmitters.
White matter disruption also occurs in multiple sclerosis where diffuse lesions are apparent in the white matter. This disruption also occurs more often in people with heightened vascular risk factors, such as hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. People who have these vascular risk factors and subsequent damage to their white matter (this damage or disruption is frequently termed leukoaraiosis) have reduced processing speed and attention (Viana-Baptista et al., 2008). Lesions to subcortical structures, such as the caudate, also result in reduced processing speed (Benke et al., 2003) in addition to executive dysfunction.
In subcortical disease processes such as Huntington’s disease, which usually starts with atrophy of the caudate nuclei, or Parkinson’s disease, which starts with a loss of the majority of dopaminergic cells in the substantia nigra, processing speed is consistently affected. Some common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are freezing and a shuffling gait; even though these symptoms are motoric, they can be indicative of the global cognitive slowing that also occurs. However, it seems that processing speed is heavily dependent on the integrity of white matter.
Because of the diffusivity of processing speed, I am not aware of any areas of the brain shown to be necessary for processing speed, outside of global white matter. As I mentioned above, damage to the caudate has been shown to affect processing speed but damage to almost any area of the brain, especially if the white matter is disrupted results in slowed processing speed. Neuropsychologists often talk about a patient who has executive dysfunction, slowed speed of processing, as well as some other cognitive deficits as exhibiting signs of a frontal-subcortical disruption – a frontal-subcortical profile. So far, no one has localized processing speed to a single area – many brain structures or areas affect it.
At this point, processing speed and executive functions cannot be “mapped” to separate basal ganglia structures or loops. Of the three classically recognized cortico-striato-thalamo-cortical loops involved in cognitive and emotional processes rather than basic motor processes, which were first introduced by Alexander, Delong, and Strick (1986), the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex circuit appears to be most correlated with processing speed (Mega & Cummings, 1994). This is also the circuit most strongly linked with executive functioning. It appears that rather than utilizing different circuits processing speed and executive functions utilize the same circuits; however, processing speed is much more globalized.
Alexander, G. E., DeLong, M. R., & Strick, P. L. (1986). Parallel organization of functionally segregated circuits linking basal ganglia and cortex. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 9, 357-381.
Benke, T., Delazer, M., Bartha, L., Auer, A. (2003). Basal ganglia lesions and the theory of fronto-subcortical loops: Neuropsychological findings in two patients with left caudate lesions. Neurocase, 9, 70-85.
Mega, M. S., & Cummings, J. L. (1994). Frontal-subcortical circuits and neuropsychiatric disorders. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 6, 358-370.
Viana-Baptista M, Bugalho P, Jordão C, Ferreira N, Ferreira A, Forjaz Secca M, Esperança-Pina JA, Ferro JM. (2008). Cognitive function correlates with frontal white matter apparent diffusion coefficients in patients with leukoaraiosis. Journal of Neurology, 255, 360-366.
A significant proportion of dopamine (DA) is produced in the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNpc) and is carried to the striatum via the nigrostriatal pathway. While this pathway has been traditionally linked with motor functioning, recent research has implicated striatal DA involvement in language (Crosson, 2003) and learning (Seger, 2006). One disease in which there is considerable DA disruption is Huntington’s Disease (HD). In HD the head of the caudate is typically the first brain structure affected by neuronal cell loss. This cell loss not only affects connections with the SNpc but also affects the connections between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex. In HD the disruption of these dopaminergic pathways leads to disruptions in motor and cognitive functioning.
How DA disruptions affect cognition has been explained by theories that are modifications of Mink’s model (1996) of center and surround (i.e., direct and indirect) basal ganglia regulation. Within the caudate there are two main families of DA receptors – D1 and D2. These receptors have been shown to have different functioning within the basal ganglia (Seger, 2006) – the D1 receptor is involved with the direct pathway and the D2 receptor is involved in the indirect pathway. The D1, or direct pathway, can be viewed as increasing the strength of the signal of the desired response while the D2, or indirect pathway, serves to reduce the noise of the competing undesired responses. Dopaminergic systemic disruption in HD should thus decrease the signal-to-noise ratio, which results in the person having a greater difficulty selecting the desired response (see model below).
*Model based on Mink (1996) and Frank, Seeberger, and O’Reilly (2004)
There is evidence that in early stages of Huntington’s disease, D2 receptors are the first to be affected, with less binding occurring at D2 receptors presumably due to receptor loss. As the disease progresses, the D1 receptors also start to become depleted, with the end result of widespread DA dysfunction (Glass, Dragunow, & Faull, 2000). This DA dysfunction possibly affects verbal learning and recall by impacting the indirect pathway in the early stages of HD and indiscriminately the whole direct and indirect system in later stages of the disease process.
Crosson (2003). Left and right basal ganglia and frontal activity during language generation: Contributions to lexical, semantic, and phonological processes. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 9, 1061-1077.
Frank, M. J., Seeberger, L. C., & O’Reilly, R. C. (2004). By carrot or by stick: Cognitive reinforcement learning in Parkinsonism. Science, 306, 1940-1943.
Glass, M., Dragunow, M., & Faull, R. L. M. (2000). The pattern of neurodegeneration in Huntington’s disease: A comparative study of cannabinoid, dopamine, adenosine and GABAA receptor alterations in the human basal ganglia in Huntington’s disease. Neuroscience, 97(3), 505-19.
Seger, C. A. (2006). The basal ganglia in human learning. Neuroscientist, 12(4), 285-290.
The basal ganglia are a collection of subcortical structures that were traditionally viewed as only being involved in movement. The basal ganglia include the caudate, globus pallidus, putamen, and nucleus accumbens (the subthalamic nucleus and the substantia nigra are also often included as part of the basal ganglia). Scientists have known about the basal ganglia’s role in movement for a number of years but have only recently really started studying their role in cognition, executive function, and memory.
Dissections of the brain have shown that there are a number of white matter “loops” exiting and entering the basal ganglia. We know that the striatum, which consists of the putamen and the caudate and is so named because there are connections between the two structures that look like stripes (striations), receives excitatory input from all over the cortex (Seger & Cincotta, 2002). The prefrontal cortex (roughly the very front of the brain) connects to the anterior putamen and the head of the caudate but the tail of the caudate and the posterior parts of the putamen receive inputs from parts of the temporal and parietal lobes. The frontal lobes are involved in tasks such as planning, remembering, organizing, and many other of the “higher-order” cognitive abilities. The parietal lobes are involved in visuo-spatial tasks and the temporal lobes are involved in memory and object recognition (these are gross simplifications of lobular function – all lobes have more functions than I wrote about). So if parts of the basal ganglia receive inputs from the frontal lobes, what are the basal ganglia doing if not just moderating movement?
Seger and Cincotta (2002) demonstrated that the striatum is involved in a type of learning. Lamar, Price, Libon, Penney, Kaplan, Grossman, and Heilman (2007) demonstrated that dementia patients with higher levels of white matter disruption (which likely interferes with basal ganglia connectivity) have poorer working memory performance. One example of what working memory is is performing a multiplication task in your head without using any paper – having to remember the digits and manipulate them is a process of working memory. Benke, Delazer, Bartha, and Auer (2003) reported on two clinical cases of patients with hematoma disrupting the left basal ganglia. Both patients had “executive function” disruption, short- and long-term memory impairment, and attentional difficulties. Many other researchers have demonstrated the role the basal ganglia has in cognition but we are still in the early stages of this area of research.