JUN 28, 2016 6:42 AM PDT

Can Dementia Steal Your Empathy?

In patients who suffer from any form of dementia, the loss of memory and other effects of the disease are devastating both to the patient and to those who care for them. Dementia can be caused by a variety of illnesses, one of the most well known being Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). A similar form of dementia that can result from a disruption in the tau and TDP43, is known as behavior variant Frontotemporal Dementia (bvFTD). While it can be caused by protein disruptions similar to AD, it’s actually different. It used to be known as Pick’s disease, after Arnold Pick, MD who described the first case of it in the late 1800s. It impacts the frontotemporal lobe exclusively and a new study from Australia shows that a particular symptom of it is a loss in empathy in patients diagnosed with it.
 Can a form of dementia result in a loss of empathy?
The study, conducted by NeuRA, Neuroscience Research Australia a non-profit research facility located in Sydney, was led by researcher Dr Muireann Irish. She and her team found that both the ability to understand other people’s emotions (cognitive empathy) and to share in other people’s feelings (affective empathy) were decreased in people with bvFTD. People diagnosed with Alzheimer’s however, retained the capacity for affective empathy.
 
In a press release, Dr. Irish stated, “Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another person’s emotional state. It allows you to pick up on someone else’s mood, whether it be happy, fearful, or concerned. Affective empathy is the ability to share and respond appropriately to another person’s emotions, for example offering someone a kind or compassionate word if you sensed they needed it.” Dr. Irish has done previous research on the effect of a loss of empathy on a patient’s caregiver. Supporting and caring for a patient with any form of dementia is exhausting, but when that patient lacks the ability to understand the feelings of others and the impact their disease has on others, the relationship is further stressed.
 
The study used neuroimaging analyses to visualize which areas of the brain had damage that could be related to loss of empathy in bvFTD and AD. It found that a core social processing area of the brain showed pronounced damage in bvFTD patients but in AD patients this loss was not seen.
 
The study was conducted with 71 participants who were patients at FRONTIER, the NeuRA’s clinic in Sydney that treats patients with frontotemporal dementia. Their caregivers were asked to fill out information on their perception of the patients' empathy before the illness and at the present time. Voxel-based morphometry (VBM) using MRI data was also used to assess how or if a reduction in grey matter volume related to loss of empathy in each patient group.  Finding out more about the areas of the brain affected by bvFTD and how that damage impacts a patient’s behavior could lead to better understanding and resources for the caregivers who are on the frontlines of the fight against dementia and who see first hand how difficult it can be. In the video below, Dr. Irish explains more about the study, take a look.

 
Sources: NeuRA, Alzheimer's Association Sydney Morning Herald
 
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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