Understanding cognition mediated by the striatum can clarify cognitive deficits in Parkinson's disease (PD). Previously, we claimed that dorsal striatum (DS) mediates cognitive flexibility. To refute the possibility that variation in cognitive effort confounded our observations, we reexamined our data to dissociate cognitive flexibility from effort. PD provides a model for exploring DS-mediated functions. In PD, dopamine-producing cells supplying DS are significantly degenerated. DS-mediated functions are impaired off and improved on dopamine replacement medication. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can confirm striatum-mediated functions.
Twenty-two PD patients, off-on dopaminergic medication, and 22 healthy age-matched controls performed a number selection task. Numerical distance between number pairs varied systematically. Selecting between two numbers that are closer versus distant in magnitude is more effortful: the symbolic distance effect. However, selecting between closer versus distant number pairs is equivalent in the need to alter attention or response strategies (i.e., cognitive flexibility). In Experiment 2, 28 healthy participants performed the same task with simultaneous measurement of brain activity with fMRI.
The symbolic distance effect was equivalent for PD versus control participants and across medication sessions. Furthermore, symbolic distance did not correlate with DS activation using fMRI. In this dataset, we showed previously that integrating conflicting influences on decision making is (1) impaired in PD and improved by dopaminergic therapy and (2) associated with preferential DS activation using fMRI.
These findings support the notion that DS mediates cognitive flexibility specifically, not merely cognitive effort, accounting for some cognitive deficits in PD and informing treatment.