Posted by: Bert Copple | September 7, 2010

Study sheds light on emotions of Alzheimer’s patients

Watching a loved one struggle with Alzheimer’s disease can be a painful process, but for the patient, the experience may be a muted one.

Alzheimer’s patients can appear withdrawn and apathetic, symptoms often attributed to memory problems or difficulty finding the words to communicate. According to a new University of Florida study, they may also have a decreased ability to experience emotions.

According to the study, when Alzheimer’s patients were asked to place an emotional value on pictures, they measured the pleasant images as less pleasant and the negative scenes as less negative compared with a control group of normal elderly people. This emotional flatness could be incorrectly interpreted as a symptom of depression.

The study’s authors proposed several reasons for the flatness. Previous studies reveal that such symptoms of Alzheimer’s are caused by deterioration of neural systems, said Dr. Kenneth Heilman, senior author.  “Even in its early stages, Alzheimer’s destroys the areas of the brain that produce chemical neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, which is essential for experiencing fear and anger,” he said.

Misinterpreting the images or not understanding the meaning of some pictures — a comprehension disorder — could have skewed the results, but the volunteers were given a naming test to minimize this possibility.

Families of Alzheimer’s patients can gain new perspective from the study, according to Dr. Todd Feinberg, a professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, who did not participate in the research. “Caregivers also should be helped to understand that it is not ‘their fault’ if a loved one seems emotionally indifferent to them.”

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