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Researchers studying emotional issues in Alzheimer's patients

January 13, 2012

Emotional issues, such as apathy and depression, have long been challenging symptoms to identify and treat in patients with Alzheimer's disease (AD).

Sunnybrook's Dr. Krista Lanctôt and Dr. Nathan Herrmann, however, are hoping to change that. They have two research studies in progress that are focused on addressing emotional issues in Alzheimer's patients.

The Apathy in Dementia Methylphenidate Trial, or ADMET, will evaluate whether a drug known as methylphenidate is an efficient and safe way to treat apathy. Common signs of apathy include a loss of interest in people and activities, as well as reduced emotional capacity.

"When AD patients suffer from apathy, they are less able to perform activities of daily living. This not only increases caregiver stress, but also results in higher institutionalization rates and health care costs. The number of AD patients worldwide could reach 80 million by 2040, so finding effective treatments for apathy is an important priority," says Dr. Lanctôt, senior scientist, Brain Sciences Program at the Sunnybrook Research Institute.

The second study addresses another challenge doctors often face with AD patients — accurately diagnosing neuropsychiatric issues when the patient has difficulty describing how they feel.

"In late stage Alzheimer's, patients can progress to the point of losing the ability to speak, making diagnosis of other health issues, such as apathy and depression, much more challenging," says Dr. Herrmann, head of geriatric psychiatry at Sunnybrook.

The study will look at an AD patient's visual attention to sad, neutral and social pictures, which is also known as the visual attention scanning system. The tests that currently exist are subjective and usually rely on an informant, such as a caregiver, to supply the information about the AD patient's emotional state. "The tool we are studying is more a objective way of diagnosing emotional issues, which can help clinicians make more accurate treatment decisions," says Dr. Herrmann.