How Does Parkinson's Disease Affect the Brain?

Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological disorder that affects more than 8.5 million people worldwide. While it's often associated with motor symptoms like tremors and rigidity, its impact extends far beyond the muscles. 

In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore how Parkinson's disease affects the brain, delving into the intricate neurological changes that underlie this condition.

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson's disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disorder that primarily affects movement control. It is a chronic and progressive condition, which means that its symptoms worsen over time. 

The disease is characterized by a variety of motor and non-motor symptoms, and it primarily results from the loss of dopamine-producing neurons in a region of the brain called the substantia nigra. Some of its most recognizable motor-related symptoms include:

  • Tremors (even at rest)
  • Bradykinesia or slowness of movement
  • Muscle rigidity
  • Postural instability
  • Gait changes

Parkinson's disease is often thought of as primarily affecting motor function, but it can also have significant cognitive and emotional consequences. This includes memory problems, attention difficulties, mood disorders, sleep disturbances, and more.

The rate of symptom progression varies from person to person. Early-stage symptoms may be mild and easily managed, but motor and non-motor symptoms can become more severe and disabling as the disease advances.

What are the key brain structures affected by Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson's disease primarily affects specific brain structures, leading to the characteristic motor symptoms and other associated changes. The critical brain structures affected by Parkinson's disease include:

  1. Substantia nigra

The substantia nigra is located in the midbrain and has a high concentration of dopamine-producing neurons. It is mainly responsible for the production of dopamine一a neurotransmitter that acts as a chemical messenger in the brain.

Parkinson’s disease primarily targets the substantia nigra, impairing dopamine-producing neurons and inducing cell death. As dopamine levels decrease, the brain's ability to regulate movement becomes impaired.

  1. Basal ganglia

The basal ganglia is a complex group of structures deep within the brain, and it plays a crucial role in controlling voluntary motor movements. 

In Parkinson's disease, dysfunction in the basal ganglia due to dopamine depletion disrupts the normal balance of excitatory and inhibitory signals, leading to motor impairments. This results in the hallmark symptoms of the disease, such as difficulty initiating and coordinating movements.

  1. Neurons

In Parkinson's disease, abnormal protein aggregates called Lewy bodies, primarily composed of a protein called alpha-synuclein, accumulate within neurons. 

These aggregates disrupt normal cellular function and are believed to contribute to the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons and other brain cells.

  1. Cortex

While the cortex is not the primary site of dopamine production, it is influenced by the basal ganglia and plays a role in motor planning and execution. Dysfunction in the cortex contributes to motor difficulties in Parkinson's disease. 

This can also result in cognitive changes, including difficulties with memory, attention, and executive functions.

  1. Thalamus

The thalamus is another vital structure affected by Parkinson's disease. It acts as a relay station for sensory information and motor signals between different parts of the brain. Changes in the thalamus can impact motor control and sensory processing.

  1. Hippocampus and limbic system

Parkinson's disease can also affect structures in the limbic system, including the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and emotion. Cognitive and mood-related symptoms in Parkinson's disease are partly attributed to these changes.

  1. Brainstem

The brainstem, which includes the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata, contains various nuclei and structures that play a role in autonomic functions, such as blood pressure regulation and digestion. 

Dysfunction in these areas can lead to non-motor symptoms like autonomic dysfunction in Parkinson's disease.

What are the treatment options for Parkinson’s disease?

The treatment of Parkinson's disease aims to manage its symptoms and improve the quality of life for individuals with the condition. Treatment plans are often tailored to each patient's specific symptoms and needs, and they may include a combination of the following approaches:


  • Levodopa: Levodopa, often combined with carbidopa (as in Sinemet), is the most effective medication for alleviating the motor symptoms of PD. Levodopa is converted into dopamine in the brain, replacing the deficient dopamine levels.
  • Dopamine agonists: These drugs stimulate dopamine receptors in the brain and can be used alone or combined with levodopa to manage symptoms.
  • MAO-B inhibitors: Monoamine oxidase-B (MAO-B) inhibitors, such as rasagiline and selegiline, help prevent the breakdown of dopamine in the brain, extending its effectiveness.
  • COMT inhibitors: Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) inhibitors, like entacapone, enhance the effectiveness of levodopa by prolonging its effects in the body.

Physical and occupational therapy

Physical therapy can help individuals with Parkinson's improve their mobility, balance, and posture. Occupational therapy focuses on activities of daily living and can assist with fine motor skills, such as handwriting.

Moreover, physical therapy and occupational therapy can play a significant role in promoting neuroplasticity in individuals with Parkinson's disease. 

Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize and adapt by forming new neural connections throughout life. It is also essential for learning, recovery, and adapting to changes caused by neurological conditions like Parkinson's disease.

Speech therapy

Speech therapy can address speech and swallowing difficulties (dysarthria and dysphagia) that may occur in Parkinson's disease.


Regular physical exercise is beneficial for people with Parkinson's. It can improve muscle strength, flexibility, and overall fitness, helping to maintain mobility and delay the progression of symptoms. Activities like walking, swimming, and dancing can be beneficial.

Lifestyle modifications

Lifestyle changes can contribute to better overall health and symptom management. Family members and caregivers should help patients practice healthy habits, such as maintaining a balanced diet, staying hydrated, and managing stress,

Supportive therapies

Non-pharmacological therapies, including music therapy, art therapy, and mindfulness techniques, can help improve mood and overall well-being.

Cognitive rehabilitation

Cognitive rehabilitation for Parkinson's disease is a structured, individualized approach to address cognitive impairments and improve cognitive functioning in individuals with Parkinson’s. Some examples of therapies include:

  • Memory training
  • Attention training
  • Planning and problem-solving tasks
  • Spatial awareness exercises
  • Visual processing training
  • Cognitive flexibility exercises

Where to find the best rehabilitation for brain injury?

Are you or a loved one facing the challenges of recovery from traumatic brain injuries (TBI), spinal injuries, and neurological disorders? 

NeuLife Rehab is an inpatient facility designed to support your recovery around the clock. Our modern, comfortable accommodation and cutting-edge equipment ensure you receive the highest level of care. 

Our experienced medical team is dedicated to providing the support, care, and therapies you need on your journey to recovery.

We offer a wide range of post-acute rehabilitation and neuro rehabilitation services tailored to your unique needs. Whether you require intensive physical therapy, cognitive rehabilitation, or assistance with daily living activities, we have you covered.

Your journey to healing begins here. Contact us now at 352-492-3475.

The material contained on this site is for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE, and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.


Dedicated to providing the highest caliber of care to individuals with brain injuries, NeuLife Rehabilitation is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF).
Learn More

Our Partners


Let Us Help...

We know that choosing the next step in your recovery from a catastrophic illness or injury is complex. Together, we can help you take the next step.

Contact us with any questions today.

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram