Frontotemporal dementia quite rare; could possibly be treated with a malaria drug according to study

  • Accepting that a loved one has any type of dementia can be difficult. When someone we care about develops frontotemporal dementia, the shock can be particularly hard to absorb, because one of the defining characteristics of frontotemporal dementia is personality change. Spouses of many years will often feel that their husband or wife has totally changed, and they are at a loss to explain the "stranger" their spouse has become.


    Frontotemporal dementia is thought to be caused by a breakdown of nerve cells in the fronto-temporal lobe of the brain.  The early personality changes can help doctors differentiate between frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer's, since memory loss is often the earliest symptom of Alzheimer's  disease, while personality change is generally evident from the start of frontotemporal dementia.

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    Since frontotemporal dementia is less familiar to most people than Alzheimer's disease, I checked with the National Institutes of Health for some background. The NIH site states that, "People with Pick's disease (frontotemporal dementia) tend to behave the wrong way in different social settings. The changes in behavior continue to get worse and are often one of the most disturbing symptoms of the disease. Some patients will have more prominent difficulty with decision making, complex tasks, or language."


    The NIH lists compulsive behaviors, inappropriate behavior, inability to function or interact in social or personal situations, abrupt mood changes, failure to recognize changes in behavior, failure to show appropriate "warmth, concern, empathy, sympathy" and many other personality changes, as symptoms.

    Memory loss does figure in to frontotemporal dementia, just as it does Alzheimer's, and personality changes do occur with Alzheimer's disease, so seeing a specialist for a dementia diagnosis is generally a good idea.


    Where do malaria drugs enter the picture?


    According to a recent article on article on titled, One Type Of Frontotemporal Dementia May Respond To Malaria Medication, there is now some promise of eventual treatment for the disease. The article states that, "The cause of some forms of frontotemporal dementia is a genetically determined reduction of a hormone-like growth factor, progranulin....various drugs that are already on the market to treat malaria, angina pectoris or heart rhythm disturbances can increase the production of progranulin."


    The studies were performed on animals, so the scientists warn against premature excitement over this finding, stating that "Experience shows that the step from cell and animal models to the patient is always connected with considerable difficulties."


    Still, these studies are encouraging. Much like intra-nasal insulin, which I reported on in the article The Shriver Report: Evidence Shows Intra-Nasal Insulin Could Improve Memory in Alzheimer's Patients, this study using already available drugs to treat frontotemporal dementia in genetically altered animals seems to put us another step ahead in fighting the disease.


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    While, as the scientists emphasize, there is a long leap between animal studies and human studies, at least these drugs have been shown to be safe for humans under other circumstances, which is quite different from a new drug that must go through safety tests on humans starting from scratch.


    Will doctors be prescribing drugs that are used to treat malaria and/or heart disturbances for those with frontotemporal dementia soon? Not likely. However, I've recently read articles reporting on the pressure to make intra-nasal insulin available to people with Alzheimer's as soon as possible.


    While the numbers of those with Alzheimer's disease far exceed those with frontotemporal dementia, I would imagine that this malaria drug study could catch fire in the same way as the intra-nasal insulin study did - at least among families with affected loved ones. We can hope for progress in treating all of these dementias.


    The study on frontotemporal dementia and malaria drugs was published in the online edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.

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Published On: February 22, 2011