Multiple System Atrophy and Cognition Webinar – Recording, Resources + Notes

Brain Support Network and Stanford University co-hosted a webinar last Monday, November 12th about Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) and cognition.



The webinar recording can be found here —



If you listen to the webinar recording, please take LESS THAN TWO MINUTES to answer six questions on our survey.  See:



To be alerted to future webinars on MSA, join Brain Support Network’s MSA email list –



For additional information on the topics addressed during the webinar, see:

Multiple system atrophy (including our list of Top Resources from around the world) –

Brain donation to support MSA

Lewy body dementia –

Parkinson’s Disease (PD) –

Orthostatic hypotension –

Cognition in PD –

Psychosis in PD –

Make an appointment with Dr. Poston or other movement disorder specialists at Stanford – Call 650-723-6469



Our terrific volunteer, Denise Dagan, wrote a summary of the webinar:

Movement disorders specialist Kathleen Poston, MD discussed the diagnostic criteria for MSA with special attention on recent research showing memory and cognition problems can occur in MSA patients.

Here are some points Dr. Poston covered in this talk:

* Symptoms of MSA (now unofficially includes cognitive impairment).

* How to approach treatment of cognitive impairment based on how suddenly symptoms appear.

* How to identify if cognitive symptoms are associated with dopamine medications.

* Outline of six cognitive domains.

* In all variants of MSA executive cognition is affected, typically later in the disease process.

* The other five cognitive domains are affected to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the variant of MSA in question.

* Definition of psychosis.

* When sudden onset or worsening of hallucinations may occur, and how to treat them.

* When a diagnosis of MSA, Parkinson’s or Lewy body dementia (LBD) should be made — based on what symptoms present and the timing of those symptoms.



Our terrific volunteer, Denise Dagan, took notes from the webinar.

Multiple System Atrophy and Cognition

Speaker:  Kathleen Poston, MD, movement disorders specialist, Stanford University
Host: Candy Welch, former MSA caregiver, Brain Support Network

November 12, 2018

This webinar will address these topics:
• What are normal cognitive problems in multiple system atrophy (MSA)?
• Can “cognitive impairment” be part of MSA?
• Can “dementia” be part of MSA?
• Are there MSA symptoms that can mimic dementia?
• When should a diagnosis of “Lewy body dementia” be given?  Does it make a difference?
• What’s the treatment?


Diagnostic Criteria for Multiple System Atrophy (MSA)
From: the Second Consensus Statement on the Diagnosis of MSA (Gilman, et. al., Neurology 2008)
Every person has early, significant autonomic dysfunction (blood pressure fluctuations, urinary frequency or incontinence, constipation, sweating, sexual dysfunction, etc.) PLUS
* Parkinsonism (slowness, stiffness, muscle rigidity) = MSA-P
* Ataxia (poor coordination) = MSA-C

Autonomic Systems (reiterated) =
• Blood pressure and heart rate fluctuations (orthostatic hypotension)
• Urinary difficulty and incontinence
• Obstructive Sleep Apnea and/or RBD
• Difficulty with sexual functioning

Parkinsonism =
• Bradykinesia (slow movement)
• Rigidity (stiffness in the muscles)
• Tremor (rhythmic shaking)
• Balance and walking problems

Cerebellar Symptoms =
• Ataxia (poor coordination)
• Can be either with limb movement or with the trunk and neck movements
• Speech problems
• Swallowing problems

Traditionally the diagnosis of ‘dementia’ has been considered a red flag that the diagnosis is not MSA.  However, it has recently been recognized that memory and cognition problems can happen in patients with MSA
2008 currently being considered for revision.

Motor versus Non-Motor Symptoms:
Classic Motor Symptoms =
• Ataxia
• Bradykinesia, Tremor, Rigidity

Mixed Motor/Non-Motor Symptoms =
• Hypophonia (soft speech) and Dysarthria (difficult or unclear articulation of speech)
• Gait and Balance Problems

Non-Motor Symptoms =
• Mild Cognitive Impairment and Dementia (rarely dementia)
• Psychosis (hallucinations and delusions)
• Sleep disorders (RBD and OSA)
• Depression/Apathy, Anxiety, Fatigue
• Constipation, Orthostatic hypotension, Urinary frequency, urgency, incontinence

Types of Cognitive Impairment:
1. Sudden
2. Intermittent (off and on)
3. Slowly progressive

1. Sudden Change in Cognition
* Most common reason for a sudden onset or change in symptoms, including cognition, is general medical illness or other medications
– Infection (such as a UTI or a cold/flu – elderly & those with neurodegenerative disorder may not run a fever or feel pain urinating)
– Medications (for pain, urinary frequency)
– Physical stress (constipation, poor sleep, travel, new physical environment)
– Emotional stress (anxiety)
– Being in the hospital (all of the above)

How to treat a Sudden Change
* Deal with the underlying cause (prior slide)
* Reduce or stop certain medications:
– Artane (any other anticholinergics)
– Amantadine
– Dopamine agonists
– Sinemet CR (carbidopa/levodopa CR)
– Comtan (entacapone)

2. Intermittent Cognitive Impairment
* Sometimes called fluctuations in cognition
* Can be associated with level of alertness throughout the day
– Determine whether cognitive impairment is related to dopamine medication by keeping a daily diary of medication dosages and times, symptom timing and duration, and meals.

Scenario 1: Non-motor symptom improves with dopamine
7:00a – Take 1, 25/100 Sinemet (carbidopa/levodopa)
9:00a – Symptom A starts
10:00a – Take 1, 25/100 Sinemet : Symptom A continues
10:30a – Symptom A ends
12:00p – Symptom A starts again
1:00p – Take 1, 25/100 Sinemet ; Symptom A continues
1:30p – Symptom A ends

Scenario 2: Non-motor symptom worsens with dopamine
7:00a – Take 1, 25/100 Sinemet
7:30a – Symptom A starts
8:00a – Symptom A ends
10:00a – Take 1, 25/100 Sinemet
10:30a – Symptom A starts
11:00a – Symptom A ends
1:00p – Take 1, 25/100 Sinemet
1:30p – Symptom A starts
2:00p – Symptom A ends

Scenario 3: Non-motor symptom is independent of dopamine, but related to meals.  This happens especially in orthostatic hypotension (fluctuating blood pressure).  Cognition can be reduced by low blood pressure.  A home blood pressure monitor can help determine if this is the situation.
7:00a – Take 1, 25/100 Sinemet
7:30a – Symptom A starts (Breakfast)
8:30a – Symptom A ends
10:00a – Take 1, 25/100 Sinemet
12:00p – Symptom A starts (Lunch)
1:00p – Take 1, 25/100 Sinemet
2:00p – Symptom A ends

3. Slowly progressive change in Cognition
* More likely to be part of the disease process

Cognitive Domains:
Each controlled by different parts of the brain.  Different parts of the brain are affected by pathology of different neurodegenerative disorders.
* Memory
* Processing speed
* Attention and working memory
* Executive function
* Visuospatial function
* Language

* Example: On your way out the door your spouse asks you:  “Can you pick up some milk while you are at the store?”
* The process of memory includes:
– Encoding = storing information properly
– Maintenance = keeping it in storage long enough to be useful
– Retrieval = recalling the information when it is needed

Processing Speed:
Time it takes to absorb new information and come up with a response.

Attention and Working Memory
Example: A friend tells you a 10 digit phone number – you keep it in your mind for about 30 seconds while you look for a pen and paper to write it down or enter it into contacts on your phone.

Executive Function:
* The cognitive processes that dictate flexible and dynamic adjustment of performance in response to a changing environment.
* Examples:
– Planning/organizing
– Complex or novel problem-solving
– Shifting attention, keeping track of, or alternating from 1 task to another
– Not being susceptible to distractions
– Generating fluent sequence of thought or words
– Learning the rules of a new task (example: programming new DVR) without direction or explicit cueing

Visuospatial Function:
[Slide showing 4 complex geometric drawings and various trapezoids, rectangles and parallelograms in the center of each.]
Given an isolated parallelogram, an impaired subject would have difficulty finding a parallelogram of the same shape within the complex geometric drawings.
* Causes problems with parking the car or clipping corners when driving
* Causes problems with directions somewhere that is not familiar and getting turned around

* Names of objects and people
* Problems can be simple:  ‘Tip of the tongue’
* Problems can be more severe:  You can’t remember the name of something you use regularly.

What is dementia?
* Comment: Alzheimer’s is the most commonly diagnosed type of dementia, but not the only one – by far.
* A person who can no longer do an activity of daily living because of a cognitive impairment has dementia.
* Examples:
– Can no longer pay the bills correctly
– Gets lost when driving
– Cannot shop for groceries

[Slide showing study results, “Cognitive Impairment in MSA: A Position statement by the Neuropsychology Task Force of the MDS Multiple System Atrophy (MODIMSA) Study Group,” Stankovic, et. al., Movement Disorders, vol. 29, no. 7, 2014.]

Autopsy verified diagnosis.
Table 1. Impaired cognitive functions in:
MSA (multiple system atrophy)
MSA-P (multiple system atrophy, parkinsonian variant)
MSA-C (multiple system atrophy, cerebellar variant)

Often impaired:  Executive cognition
Sometimes impaired: Attention and working memory, spontaneous recall (immediate & delayed), recognition, visuospatial functions

Often impaired:  Executive cognition
Sometimes impaired: Attention and working memory, spontaneous immediate recall, visuospatial functions

Often impaired:  Executive cognition
Sometimes impaired: Attention and working memory, spontaneous delayed recall, recognition, visuospatial functions]

[Slide results from same study:]
* Prevalence of rates of cognitive impairment in autopsy confirmed MSA:
– 22% Mild Cognitive Impairment,
– 2% Moderate Cognitive Impairment,
– 0.5% Severe Cognitive Impairment
* 50% of those MSA patients with more than 8 years after diagnosis had some Cognitive Impairment
– Cognitive impairment seems to happen most frequently late in the disease process
* 14% of MSA patients had dementia in the last year before death
* 9% had well-formed visual hallucinations (one study)

[Slide showing study results, “Profile of Cognitive Impairment and Underlying Pathology in MSA,” Koga, et. al., Movement Disorders, vol. 32, no. 3, 2017.  Autopsy verified diagnosis.]

Table 2. Comparison of demographic and clinical features between 102 patients:
MSA-CI (multiple system atrophy with cognitive impairment) 33 patients
MSA-NC (multiple system atrophy without cognitive impairment) 69 patients

Data collected:
– Females with and without cognitive impairment
– Age at onset, in years
– Age at death, in years
– Disease duration
– Family history of dementia
– Family history of parkinsonism
– Having clinical diagnosis of MSA.  Only 70% accurately diagnosed.
– Clinical phenotype (both Parkinson’s and Cerebellar)
– Clinical symptoms of depression]

[Slide showing Characteristics of cognitive impairment in same 33 patients with MSA and cognitive impairment.  11 of the 33 had other pathologies that may have contributed to cognitive impairment, in addition to MSA pathology.]

What is meant by ‘psychosis’?
* Illusions – Misinterpretations of real stimuli. Can be unformed, such as a sense of presence or a fleeting false impression.  Example: see a jacket on a chair and misinterpret that it is a cat.
* Hallucinations – Spontaneous, fully formed. Most often visual, but can be auditory, tactile, olfactory (smell), or gustatory (taste).  Example: seeing there is a cat when there is not a cat.  With insight the person knows the hallucinations are not real.  Without insight they cannot know the hallucinations are not real; at this point, consider medication intervention.
* Delusions – False thinking. Can be paranoia.  Also, consider medication intervention.

Motor Symptoms – Sometimes Improved by dopamine medications
Hallucinations – Can be worsened by dopamine medications

Sudden Onset or Worsening of Hallucinations (Same as any worsening symptoms, including cognition.)
* Most common reason for a sudden onset or change in symptoms is general medical illness or other medications
– Infection (such as a UTI or a cold/flu)
– Medications (for pain, urinary frequency)
– Physical stress (constipation, poor sleep, travel, new physical environment)
– Emotional stress (anxiety)
– Being in the hospital (all of the above)

How to treat a Sudden Change
1. Deal with the underlying cause (prior slide)
2. Reduce or stop certain medications:
* Artane (any other anticholinergics)
* Amantadine
* Dopamine agonists
* Sinemet CR (carbidopa/levodopa CR)
* Comtan (entacapone)

What is the difference between MSA, Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body Dementia (LBD)?
Cognition = Memory and Hallucinations AND
Motor = Ataxia, Bradykinesia, Rigidity and Tremor WORSEN OVER TIME

Pathologically (only visible at autopsy):
[Slide showing Lewy body Pathology (image) in Both PD & LBD
Glial Cytoplasmic Inclusion Pathology (image) in MSA
Both Lewy Bodies and GCIs are make of up of the protein a-synuclein]

As is currently defined, all 3 would have autonomic dysfunction:
* The Diagnosis of PD with cognitive impairment or Dementia should be made when memory problems develops within the context of established PD.
* The Diagnosis of LBD is appropriate when the diagnosis of Dementia precedes or coincides within 1 year of the development of motor symptoms (parkinsonism).
* The Diagnosis of MSA is appropriate when the there is primary Autonomic Dysfunction, along with either parkinsonism or ataxia (with, or without memory problems).

Please take a 20 question online survey about MSA diagnosis and symptoms!!!

Lots of questions were received in advance.

Q. When will the diagnostic criteria be updated?
A. It is in the works.  So, probably the next year and a half.

Q. Why aren’t MDs able to determine if someone has MSA or LBD?
A. Even though in pathology the Lewy Bodies look different from the GCIs, there is no way to image them through an MRI, etc.

Q. Are there any specific assessments or screenings that you recommend for evaluating and monitoring an MSA patient’s cognitive status?
A. The screening a doctor would do during an office visit.  The Montreal Cognitive Assessment covers all the cognitive domains.  The problem is that is it fast (30 questions) so not detailed.  A neuropsychological battery, 2-3 hours of testing requires a PhD, clinical psychologist, to administer.

Q. Connection between NPH (normal pressure hydrocephalus) and MSA.
A. NPH can cause spaces in the brain to enlarge and press against other areas of the brain affecting urinary, cognition and gait.  The symptoms manifest differently from MSA and can be seen in an MRI.  That is one way to identify those with NPH and exclude MSA.

Q. What is sleep’s role in cognition?
A. A bad night sleep affects processing speed, executive function so address sleep apnea, have a nap, monitor blood pressure and minimize BP fluctuation to maximize cognitive function.

Q. How are executive functions affected in MSA?
A. This can come across as difficulty with multi-tasking because that requires a very high level of cognitive function.  Figuring out what to do in the right order is required.  When someone has trouble making a to-do list, there are some executive function issues.

Q. What is fatigue’s role in cognition?
A. Fatigue is very involved in blood pressure.  There is a lot of fatigue fundamental to each of these disorders.  Fatigue gets some improvement with napping or resting where blood pressure and dementia does not.

Q. How common are hallucinations in MSA?  Can there be hallucinations without Lewy body dementia?
A. Yes, recent studies have convinced clinicians.  That wasn’t known 10 years ago and Dr. Postonhas seen it in her clinic.

Q. How does dementia in MSA differ from Lewy body dementia?  Parkinson’s disease dementia?
A. It can be pretty darned similar.  The dementia, particularly the executive function issues, which is why the neuropsychological testing doesn’t differentiate between these.

Q. How does the cognitive impairment in MSA differ from that seen in Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP)?
A. Patients with PSP can have a lot of executive function difficulty as well, but they often have poor judgement, even though they know their balance is terrible.  This can happen in other neurodegenerative disorders, but is more common in PSP,

Q. My husband is now very susceptible to TV ads and asks me to order products we do not need.  Is this executive function impairment?
A. Impulsivity can be part of the underlying disorder but can be made worse with dopamine agonists (Requip, Mirapex, Nupro patch).

Q. My husband is slow to respond, slow to make decisions, and has “on-and-off” periods.  Is this dementia?
A. It depends on the degree to which the on/off periods and indecision interfere with ability to complete activities of daily living.  On/off could be from medications or blood pressure fluctuations, so its hard to tell.

Q. Could MSA-related cognitive impairment be mistaken for vascular-related mild cognitive impairment?
A. The only study addressing that is the one showed where 4-5 had vascular disease found at autopsy that could have contributed to cognitive impairment.  It is impossible to tease out how much each contributes how much to cognitive impairment.

Q. How can you tell the difference between orthostatic hypotension and cognitive impairment?
A. The most common place you see this is when blood pressure stops and processing speed slows so much the person cannot answer questions. Blood pressure should be done during these episodes.  The tilt table test during cognitive testing can reveal whether the person has cognitive changes associated with blood pressure changes.

Q. In our local support group, people with MSA are taking Alzheimer’s medications such as Aricept and Exelon.  Does this mean they have dementia?  Lewy body dementia?
A. As far as medications to treat cognition, Alzheimer’s is the only disease FDA approved to treat.  Aricept, Exelon and Namenda are the most common.  These are not FDA approved for any other cognitive impairments.  The best data is behind Aricept and Exelon for Alzheimer’s and LBD.  They do help a little bit, but they can help for other cognitive and memory issues.

Q. How is the care of a person with MSA different from someone with dementia?  Or different from someone with other
neurological diseases (such as PSP or CBD)?
A. Longitudinal studies show the care of any two patients with MSA is completely different.  Care must be specifically tailored to each person.  One may have severe urinary issues and another not.  This is true of all the neurodegenerative disorders.

Q. If someone with MSA has cognitive issues, is his/her prognosis (survival time) any different?
A. Chance of having cognitive problems is most likely if they live 8+ years after diagnosis.  Once someone has a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease with dementia their prognosis is shortened.

Q. How can medications affect cognition?
Q. If opiates can affect cognition and cause hallucinations, what kind of pain reliever can I give to my mother with pain?
A. Anything that treats pain dulls all neurons in the brain, blocking the sensation of pain.  Therefore simultaneously slows cognition, worsens hallucinations, etc.  Start with over the counter pain killers.  If you have to go to prescriptions discuss with doctor about what to try and start with lowest dose possible.

Q. Can cognitive problems be prevented in MSA?
A. We don’t understand what causes cognitive problems so we don’t have a way of preventing them.

Q. How can caregivers respond to someone with MSA and cognitive problems?
A. It is difficult because patients can get frustrated.  Patients do improve with a certain amount of cueing, reminding, etc.  Unfortunately, spouses call this nagging.  Try to know what the problem is by getting neuropsychologist testing and refer back to the test or have the doctor tell him/her what they have difficulty with.

Q.Do people with MSA not live long enough for dementia to show up?
A. No.

Q. Can people with MSA *also* have Alzheimer’s disease?
A. Yes.

Q. Can people with MSA *also* have Lewy body dementia?
A. Yes, but very rare.

Q. When do we determine when the patient is unable to work because decisions are cloudy or cognition is impaired?
A. Depends on the job and flexibility the employer has to move employee into a different role and relationship between the two.  Most of the time once executive functioning is impacted, it is difficult to be employed because decisions are too hard.

Q. Once the patient is non verbal and unable to move on his/her own accord, is this considered a disability automatically?
A. In filling out disability paperwork people qualify long before someone is nonverbal or unable to move.

Q. When do we determine when the patient is unable to drive because cognition is impaired?
A. This varies by state.  In CA if someone has dementia the physician is required by law to report them to the DMV for evaluation.  Occupational therapists can do an assessment, even with a driving simulator, to see what concerns might be, especially visuospatial changes.

Q. Importance of brain donation to MSA research.
A. Critical.  Without autopsy diagnosis confirmation we would still be guessing.  Before research based on brain donations we used to think MSA was 3 different disorders.  We can only continue research into MSA and other neurodegenerative disorders with continued access to brain tissue donated for research purposes.