2012-2013 Annual Report

Awakening Empathy

It lurks quietly at first, slowly destroying all that is you, and striking just as you look forward to spending more time doing things you love with people you love. 

This cruel disease is frontotemporal dementia (FTD), which progressively ravages the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Most often emerging in midlife – as people reach their 50s and 60s - this neurodegenerative disorder can initially go undiagnosed because of the subtle changes it brings to personality, decision making and judgement. 

Currently there are no treatments to slow or cure FTD or to treat its symptoms. But research by Dr. Elizabeth Finger, a neurologist at St. Joseph's Parkwood Hospital and a researcher with Lawson Health Research Institute, is exploring how a hormone called oxytocin can help with FTD symptoms. 

Oxytocin is holding new promise for increasing positive social behaviour and, most importantly for patients with FTD, in restoring empathy. "The lack of empathy for others is the FTD symptom that is most devastating to caregivers," says Dr. Finger. "Patients with FTD become cold, indifferent and lose all empathy toward the people they most love and cherish, while at the same time becoming entirely dependent on these same people for care."

Dr. Finger 
Dr. Elizabeth Finger, a neurologist at St. Joseph’s Parkwood Hospital and a scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute, reviews brain scans of a patient with frontotemporal dementia.

Results in Dr. Finger’s first study of oxytocin in FTD, sponsored by the Alzheimer Society of London and Middlesex, revealed improvements in some patients’ behaviours. 

When Mary Wolff’s husband, Chris, was diagnosed with FTD they immediately got involved in Dr. Finger’s research. For some patients, like Chris, pain may be associated with FTD and he started resisting physical contact. "This made caring for Chris challenging because it was difficult not to touch him when doing personal care," Mary says. After taking oxytocin, she saw a definite improvement. "He was calmer."

While Chris received only a small dose of oxytocin, Dr. Finger believes a larger dose has the potential to do greater good. She is currently evaluating the safety of varying doses of oxytocin in a study sponsored by the Canadian Consortium for Clinical Cognitive Research. If successful, it will be followed by an international multi-centred study of oxytocin for the symptoms of FTD.

"We are hopeful our work with oxytocin will identify potential new treatments to at least temporarily reawaken some emotions in our FTD patients," Dr. Finger says. Building further on this work, she and Dr. Derek Mitchell from Western University received a grant from Canadian Institute of Health Research to study the brain's response to oxytocin and other interventions that may augment empathy in FTD sufferers.

For families like the Wolffs, research is critical. "I figured if we participated in the study," says Mary, "maybe it would help our kids, grandkids or somebody in the future." 

Back to Annual Report Stories