Grant awarded to Dr Muireann Irish to explore the loss of the experience of pleasure in dementia

Dr Muireann Irish has been awarded a $50,000 grant from the Alzheimer’s Australia Dementia Research Foundation to explore the nature and extent of anhedonia across dementia syndromes. Anhedonia describes the loss of the ability to experience pleasure, such as that derived from viewing an emotive work of art or hearing an evocative musical piece.

The research will also clarify the systems of the brain involved in the hedonic experience in dementia and create targeted guidelines to improve quality of life for patients and their carers.

“My previous research has demonstrated that the use of familiar music significantly enhances autobiographical memory retrieval in individuals with mild Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr Irish. “Music therapy has been shown to reduce agitation and behavioural symptoms of Alzheimer’s, which may provide a means of non-verbal communication between an individual and their caregiver. In a similar vein, art therapy has been shown to improve quality of life, mood disorders and behavioural disturbances, with a recent study demonstrating that the aesthetic experience of viewing art is preserved in Alzheimer’s.

“Our study will clarify the extent to which anhedonia is present in younger-onset dementia, and will determine whether art and music are viable sources of stimulation for these individuals.”

Dr Irish will recruit patients from the FRONTIER younger-onset dementia research group at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA). The research is expected to run from 2016 to 2017.

What will the study involve?

  • The study will include patients with Alzheimer’s disease, behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD) and semantic dementia (SD), as well as healthy matched controls.
  • Participants will experience a variety of stimuli and be asked to rate how pleasing they find each piece.
  • Patients and caregivers will complete a variety of questionnaires to assess the degree of change in the hedonic experience in the patient.
  • The relationship between performance on the Aesthetic Judgment Task and secondary measures will be explored to determine the association between hedonic experience and everyday functioning in dementia.
  • An MRI will also be taken of patients to map the associations between grey-matter integrity of the brain and task performance.