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Original Investigation
March 2016

Assessment of Eating Behavior Disturbance and Associated Neural Networks in Frontotemporal Dementia

Author Affiliations
  • 1Neuroscience Research Australia, Sydney
  • 2University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
  • 3Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Cognition and Its Disorders, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
  • 4Brain and Mind Centre, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
  • 5University of Cambridge Metabolic Research Laboratories and National Institute for Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre, Wellcome Trust–Medical Research Council Institute of Metabolic Science, Cambridge, United Kingdom
JAMA Neurol. 2016;73(3):282-290. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2015.4478

Importance  Abnormal eating behaviors are common in patients with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), yet their exact prevalence, severity, and underlying biological mechanisms are not understood.

Objective  To define the severity of abnormal eating behavior and sucrose preference and their neural correlates in patients with behavioral variant FTD (bvFTD) and semantic dementia.

Design, Setting, and Participants  Forty-nine patients with dementia (19 with bvFTD, 15 with semantic dementia, and 15 with Alzheimer disease) were recruited, and their eating behavior was compared with that of 25 healthy controls. The study was conducted from November 1, 2013, through May 31, 2015, and data analyzed from June 1 to August 31, 2015.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Patients participated in an ad libitum breakfast test meal, and their total caloric intake and food preferences were measured. Changes in eating behavior were also measured using the Appetite and Eating Habits Questionnaire (APEHQ) and the Cambridge Behavioral Inventory (CBI). Sucrose preference was tested by measuring liking ratings of 3 desserts of varying sucrose content (A: 26%, B: 39%, C: 60%). Voxel-based morphometry analysis of whole-brain 3-T high-resolution brain magnetic resonance imaging was used to determine the gray matter density changes across groups and their relations to eating behaviors.

Results  Mean (SD) ages of patients in all 4 groups ranged from 62 (8.3) to 66 (8.4) years. At the ad libitum breakfast test meal, all patients with bvFTD had increased total caloric intake (mean, 1344 calories) compared with the Alzheimer disease (mean, 710 calories), semantic dementia (mean, 573 calories), and control groups (mean, 603 calories) (P < .001). Patients with bvFTD and semantic dementia had a strong sucrose preference compared with the other groups. Increased caloric intake correlated with atrophy in discrete neural networks that differed between patients with bvFTD and semantic dementia but included the cingulate cortices, thalami, and cerebellum in patients with bvFTD, with the addition of the orbitofrontal cortices and nucleus accumbens in patients with semantic dementia. A distributed network of neural correlates was associated with sucrose preference in patients with FTD.

Conclusions and Relevance  Marked hyperphagia is restricted to bvFTD, present in all patients with this diagnosis, and supports its diagnostic value. Differing neural networks control eating behavior in patients with bvFTD and semantic dementia and are likely responsible for the differences seen, with a similar network controlling sucrose preference. These networks share structures that control cognitive-reward, autonomic, neuroendocrine, and visual modulation of eating behavior. Delineating the neural networks involved in mediating these changes in eating behavior may enable treatment of these features in patients with complex medical needs and aid in our understanding of structures that control eating behavior in patients with FTD and healthy individuals.