Olfactory dysfunction represents a frequent and disturbing non-motor manifestation of Parkinson"s disease (PD). The pathophysiology of olfactory dysfunction in PD is still poorly understood. Experimental evidence suggests that olfactory impairment could be related to central cholinergic dysfunction. Short latency afferent inhibition (SAI) technique gives the opportunity to test an inhibitory cholinergic circuit in the human cerebral motor cortex. The objective of the study was to assess the cholinergic function, as measured by SAI, in PD patients with different degrees of olfactory dysfunction. We applied SAI technique in 31 patients with PD. These patients also underwent Olfactory Event-Related Potentials (OERPs) studies to objectively evaluate the olfactory system and a battery of neuropsychological tests to assess the cognitive functions. Absent OERPs indicated a severe olfactory dysfunction in 13 subjects. The presence of OERPs with an alteration in latency and/or amplitude can be considered as a borderline condition of slight alteration of smell and was found in other 15 patients. Only 3 patients showed normal OERPs. SAI was significantly reduced in the PD patients with absent OERPs compared with those with present but abnormal OERPs. Neuropsychological examination showed a mild cognitive impairment in 12 out of 13 PD patients with severe olfactory dysfunction, and in 3 out of the 15 patients with borderline olfactory dysfunction. SAI abnormalities and presence of severe olfactory impairment strongly support the hypothesis of cholinergic dysfunction in some patients with PD, who will probably develop a dementia. Longitudinal studies are required to verify whether SAI abnormalities in PD patients with olfactory dysfunction can predict a future severe cognitive decline.
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