Professor Simon Lewis

Professor Simon Lewis.

One of Australia's leading Parkinson's disease researchers has called for federal funding for a brain training course proven to improve memory.

The Canberra Irish Club hosted University of Sydney associate professor in cognitive neuroscience, Simon Lewis, on Thursday as he described the program and other research to more than 140 people living with Parkinson's or working in the field.

“It involves a seven-week program – it’s about education, then one hour working with our neuropsychologists doing programs on the computer [puzzles etc],” Dr Lewis said.

“What we’ve shown is that those who have memory impairment with Parkinson’s who did the seven-week program had their memory improved, and an improvement in their quality of life.”

There were 50 participants in the brain-training program, which involved twice-weekly sessions delivered in a group format.

The education included memory strategies – such as breaking down shopping lists into different categories – and also targeted problems including depression, anxiety, sleep and exercise.

“It’s about neuroplasticity – using parts of your brain that didn’t do that thing in the [past] – using parts that were in reserve, or at least making them more efficient,” Dr Lewis said.

Dr Lewis’s speech was the inaugural public lecture of the Parkinson’s ACT support group, and attracted people living with Parkinson’s and their carers from Goulburn, Cooma and Queanbeyan.

There were 64,000 Australians living with Parkinson’s disease in 2011, making it the nation’s most common neurological disease after Alzheimer’s.

Welsh-born Dr Lewis, the director of the Parkinson's Disease Research Clinic at the Brain & Mind Research Institute, said the cost-effective program could help keep some people out of nursing homes for longer.

“Everyone is talking about Alzheimer’s, and frankly the government need to invest in strategies that prevent people with Parkinson’s ending up in nursing homes,” he said.

“What we are talking about here is something that can continually improve memory retention without side effects.” 

The research from the Brain & Mind Research Institute was published online in the international Movement Disorders journal about a month ago.

Parkinson’s ACT’s Annette Healy said Dr Lewis’ address on the mysterious disease – which was followed by 30 minutes of questions – enthralled those who attended.

“He's able to explain very complicated science very clearly and make it relevant, and describe what’s going on in your brain when you are living with Parkinson’s disease,” she said.

“Very little is still known about it – there is no known cause, no known cure, and there is no typical Parkinson’s patient.

“There’s still so much ignorance in the general community and in the medical community – it’s hard to diagnose because it presents as many things.”

Ms Healy said it was estimated about 1000 people in the region lived with Parkinson’s.