Festival bites: BNA 2013 Day 3
Over the next four days BNA 2013: Festival of Neuroscience is filling the Barbican with an extravaganza of brain science. A lucky group of science writers from the Wellcome Trust are attending the Festival. Each day, we’ve asked them to give a short account of the seminars and lectures which they attend, to share the new research, stimulating discussions, and the unanswered questions, which they encounter. Today’s post from Theresa Taylor presents the research of Professor John Hodges, whose clinical research group is dedicated to the study of frontotemporal dementia (FTD).
Frontotemporal dementia: not the same person
by Theresa Taylor
John was in his early fifties when he came into neuropsychologist Professor John Hodges’ office. Until then his mental health had been unextraordinary. He had been head boy at high school, before joining the family firm. He had two children and was married. But his personality had been progressively changing. He had started drinking. He was thoughtless and lacked empathy. He was socially inappropriate, rude and had drifted away from his children to the point that he didn’t bother going to his daughter’s graduation.
John’s executive functions, memory, language and knowledge seemed normal on classic tests. But over the next four years his self-care deteriorated and he began overeating severely until he died. When Hodges and his colleagues examined John’s brain, they found the amygdela and orbital frontal cortex, which are involved in emotional reactions and decision making respectively, had wasted away. John was a suffering from a behavioural form of frontotemporal dementia (FTD), an early onset form of dementia, and had many of its common symptoms.
One of the problems Hodges highlighted today was the lack of care facilities for sufferers of early onset dementia: “The stress levels of carers of people with frontotemporal dementia are far higher then say for Alzheimers disease,” he said.
To diagnose patients Hodges uses a combination of behavioural tests and neuroimaging. In one test patients read a story which features a social awkward episode, for example accidentally letting slip to a friend that you disliked their Christmas present. Patients with frontotemporal dementias would be unable to identify this situation as uncomfortable or marked out from others. They are also given sarcasm tests, for example watching videos where actors play out sarcastic and genuine conversations, to see if they are able to differentiate between the two.
One recent study presented patients with pictures of people with different emotional expressions. Hodges found that patients have particular difficulty differentiating between negative emotions, identifying the difference between disgust and fear for example. Although patients are generally poor at recognising these emotions, researchers have been able to establish that patients with the worst wasting in particular parts of the brain are consistently worse with particular emotions. Patients with the worse wasting in the amygdala, for example, were not able to identify fear, whilst the ability to identify anger was linked to the amygdala and the hippocampal region.
At the Festival today? Tell us what your highlights are and keep up to date with the latest Festival news on Twitter using the hashtag #BNAneurofest.
The scientific programme for BNA 2013: Festival of Neuroscience is not open to the public, but there are also public events happening throughout the week at the Barbican as part of the Wonder season. Including the Wonder Street Fair – a free public event bringing together science and art on the brain. There’ll be interactive exhibits, activities to help you explore the brain and much more. Visit the website for more information.