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Profound loss of pleasure linked to early onset dementia

New research has found that a profound inability to feel pleasure, known as anhedonia, is a key feature of early onset dementia and the study could provide an area for future treatments of the condition.

Anhedonia is technically defined as one's diminished ability to experience, and to pursue, pleasure or enjoy previously pleasurable activities and the researchers from the University of Sydney believe this is the first study to demonstrate profound anhedonia in people with frontotemporal dementia (FTD).

“Much of human experience is motivated by the drive to experience pleasure but we often take this capacity for granted," said the paper's senior author, Professor Muireann Irish from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre and School of Psychology in the Faculty of Science.

“But consider what it might be like to lose the capacity to enjoy the simple pleasures of life – this has stark implications for the wellbeing of people affected by these neurodegenerative disorders."

Using brain imaging, the team Looked at 172 participants, including 87 with FTD and 34 with Alzheimer’s, and noted degeneration, or atrophy, in frontal and striatal areas of the brain related to diminished reward-seeking, in patients with frontotemporal dementia (FTD).

However, anhedonia was not present in a group of participants with Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting this symptom is specific to FTD.

Early signs of dementia in younger people can often be misdiagnosed as depression; anhedonia is common in people with depression as well as bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and can be particularly disabling for the individual.

The results of this new study point to the importance of considering anhedonia as a primary presenting feature of FTD, where researchers found neural drivers in areas that are distinct from apathy or depression.

“Our findings also reflect the workings of a complex network of regions in the brain, signalling potential treatments,” said Professor Irish.

“Future studies will be essential to address the impact of anhedonia on everyday activities, and to inform the development of targeted interventions to improve quality of life in patients and their families.”

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