Two researchers at Western's Brain and Mind Institute, Dr. Elizabeth Finger and Dr. Derek Mitchell have just received a 4-year grant from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research to evaluate the impact of a potential novel treatment for the loss of empathy that occurs in Frontotemporal dementia (FTD). FTD is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that typically strikes adults in mid-life (age 50-60). A hallmark of the disease is a progressive loss of the capacity for empathy, even for one's own family members. This problem is magnified by the fact that the affected individuals exhibit a complete lack of insight into the changes that have occurred in their personality and behaviour.
Right now there are no accepted treatments for the emotional blunting, lack of empathy, and other deficits in social behaviour that accompany FTD. Recently, however, Drs. Finger and Mitchell have begun to examine the effectiveness of oxytocin as a possible treatment for the social and emotional problems in patients with FTD. Oxytocin is a hormone and neuropeptide in the brain, which has been shown to play an important role in social behaviour and empathy. The two Western researchers and their colleagues carried out the first study of the effectiveness of oxytocin in a randomized and double-blind design in which 20 patients with FTD received a one-time dose of oxytocin nasal spray or a saline placebo spray. A single dose of the oxytocin spray was associated with a 10% reduction in FTD-related behaviours in the evening compared to the placebo.
The new CIHR-funded study will examine brain function while patients and healthy controls view and attempt to mimic the emotions of others – and for the first time will evaluate the impact of oxytocin on empathy-related behaviours and brain function in patients with FTD. Dr. Finger commented, “This study will not only provide new insights into the brain circuits underlying empathy and emotional behaviour but may also help us determine whether oxytocin can improve the function of these brain circuits in FTD patients.” Dr. Mitchell added, “It is our hope that the functional brain imaging and cognitive techniques that we are developing to study emotional and social behaviour in FTD may also be successfully applied to other disorders, such as autism and antisocial disorders.”