Study: People with Alzheimer's Use Empathy to Mimic Emotions

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • For about three years before Mom was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, my parents had knock-down, drag-out fights. These fights seemed highly unusual since I don’t remember my parents ever fighting anytime in front of me while I was growing up or as an adult. Yet as Mom’s memory collapsed and Dad’s frustration bubbled as he watched his sharp-as-a-tack wife who he had been married to for almost 50 years struggle with words and consistently repeat herself, their words became increasingly heated and their exchanges increasingly had more venom.

    Since I lived about eight hours away from them, I couldn’t intervene, which may have been a blessing since my father tried to get me to intervene with Mom, who was my best friend. I do remember my parents coming to visit me and I wouldn’t take a stand, but I felt torn apart. Instead, I took Dad out to breakfast and proceeded to counsel him on what he was doing wrong and how to approach Mom. He didn’t take my advice, and things got a whole lot worse before they got better. Even today, Dad feels guilty about those interactions.

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    I had always hypothesized that Mom’s rage at this point was actually related to her mild cognitive impairment and triggered by Dad’s frustration. And it seemed a really logical conclusion when I found that reacting with Zen-like calmness helped defuse Mom’s uncharacteristic anger when she lived with me over a two-week period right before her diagnosis.

    Well, it turns out that I may have been on to something.  A new study out of the University of California, San Francisco found that people who have Alzheimer’s disease and even mild cognitive impairment tend to mimic the emotions of people around them through what researchers call “emotional contagion.” Emotional contagion is considered a building block for more complex forms of empathy and is seen in human adults, newborn babies as well as some animals.


    A Type of Empathy

    Dr. Virginia Sturm, an assistant professor at UCSF’s department of neurology and the study’s lead researcher, describes emotional contagion as a basic type of empathy involves the sharing of emotions between people, even though the individuals may not be aware of it. Furthermore, the process of emotional contagion can shape behaviors and result in changes in the brain’s functioning. And as the National Geographic noted, the study found that as Alzheimer’s disease progresses in wiping away more brain cells as well as cognitive abilities, people who have the condition become more sensitive to the behaviors, words and feelings of other people.

    The study involved 237 participants. Of those, 111 did not have cognitive impairment while 62 were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Sixty-four participants had Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers scanned the brains of the study participants to determine how far the disease had progressed. The researchers also asked study participants to respond to questions that are part of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which measures emotional contagion. The researchers also assessed whether participants had depressive symptoms.

  • They found that participants who had lost the greatest amount of brain tissue from the temporal lobe, which is associated with memory and emotional processing and is one of the first brain region’s to be attacked by Alzheimer’s, was linked to the highest amount of emotional contagion.

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    Steps for Positive Emotional Contagion

    So what does this mean? Based on my own experience with my Mom, I believe that if you have a loved one who has Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment, it’s important to keep a sunny disposition and a disciplined sense of calm. It’s very easy to get upset by the things that people who have Alzheimer’s say as well as what they do, but knowing they may be challenging your own actions, reactions and words makes it imperative that you keep your cool and maintain your composure.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Hughes, V. (2013). With Alzheimer’s comes empathy. National Geographic.


    Reinberg, S. (2013). Alzheimer's patients may mimic emotions. WebMD.


    Sturm, V. E., et al. (2013). Heightened emotional contagion in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease is associated with temporal lobe degeneration. National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

    Yirka, B. (2013). Study shows emotional contagion increases in Alzheimer’s patients. Medical Xpress.

Published On: May 29, 2013