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UC Berkeley Psychophysiology lab studies effect of dementia on emotions

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NOVEMBER 29, 2012

The UC Berkeley Psychophysiology Lab appears nondescript. Located on the ground floor of Tolman Hall, it has a maze of rooms — one has nothing but a table of computers, another looks like a waiting room with a couch and table and yet another houses equipment. The lab’s simplicity, however, belies the extraordinary research being conducted within.

The lab is attempting to understand the mysteries of dementia through probing — not of the brain, but rather of emotions.

The lab is currently working on a project to understand the effects of dementia on social and emotional functioning, according to Robert Levenson, a professor in the department of psychology and head of the lab.

Dementia is a serious loss of cognitive function beyond what might be expected of normal aging, and it impairs areas of the brain such as memory. The condition is common among the older population, and according to the American Psychological Association, nearly 4 million Americans had some type of dementia in 2002. That number is only expected to increase by 2050.

But for how common the condition is, effective treatment continues to elude doctors.

Current dementia research is focused on looking at abnormalities in the brain that might explain how the condition could arise, but the Psychophysiology Lab is looking at how the condition affects emotions, trying to find commonalities that could help psychologists diagnose the disease early on, which Levenson said is currently difficult to do.

“We are looking at the behavioral changes that occur with these diseases and mapping those changes onto particular parts of the brain known to be affected by those diseases,” Levenson said.

The lab is looking at two types of dementia, one of which is Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia that affects the part of the brain responsible for memory and an individual’s ability to navigate through space.

Levenson said the lab also looks at frontotemporal dementia, which affects different circuits in the brain responsible for memory, thinking and, most importantly, emotional functioning.

According to lab manager Scott Newton, this project, which began over 10 years ago in collaboration with a team of UCSF neurologists, employs tasks that test for basic emotional reactivity, empathy and emotional regulation and complex social interactions.

Participants are shown videos designed to elicit emotions and are asked to self-report how they feel before and after the videos, according to Newton. They are also led to engage in conversations with their caregivers — who are often spouses or other family members — about topics that are personally controversial to their relationships.

The lab has found that dementia patients react less emotionally to these triggers than do people without the condition.

Sandy Lwi, a fourth-year graduate student in the lab, said that this was expected because dementia is degenerative to the brain. She said that through the tasks, the team is trying to understand exactly what aspect of emotional functioning is impaired in dementia patients.

“What we are trying to figure out is whether dementia patients are understanding their emotions and are just not able to respond, or whether they are incapable of even understanding what they are feeling,” Lwi said.

The lab is even more notable in that it is also conducting a complementary study that aims to understand how caregivers of dementia patients are affected by the demands of their role. Levenson said that these caregivers are actually at risk for both psychological and even physical illnesses, and his team is trying to understand what particular symptoms in dementia patients are most problematic for caregivers’ well-being.

“We think emotional changes are more likely to produce these kinds of psychological problems for caregivers,” Levenson said. “The fact that the person is destroyed by the disease and becomes cold and uncaring makes the whole process much more solitary and isolating for the caregiver.”

Emotion is one area of psychology that is not well understood, and it is only within the last few decades that research in this area has taken off. Levenson said that when he first came to UC Berkeley, his lab was the only one looking at emotion, but now he claims that it is difficult to find a lab that isn’t researching emotion.

“Emotion is that part of our lives that links us to other species, and it is sensitive to things like age, gender and culture,” Levenson said. “Research in emotion is having a nice run, and it will be fascinating to see where it will all lead.”

Pooja Mhatre covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 29, 2012