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Apathy and Impulsivity in Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration Syndromes



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Lansdall, Claire Jade 


There has been considerable progress in the clinical, pathological and genetic fractionation of frontotemporal lobar degeneration syndromes in recent years, driving the development of novel diagnostic criteria. However, phenotypic boundaries are not always distinct and syndromes converge with disease progression, limiting the insights available from traditional diagnostic classification. Alternative transdiagnostic approaches may provide novel insights into the neurobiological underpinnings of symptom commonalities across the frontotemporal lobar degeneration spectrum.

In this thesis, I illustrate the use of transdiagnostic methods to investigate apathy and impulsivity. These two multifaceted constructs are observed across all frontotemporal lobar degeneration syndromes, including frontotemporal dementia, progressive supranuclear palsy and corticobasal syndrome. They cause substantial patient morbidity and carer distress, often coexist and are undertreated. Using data from the Pick’s disease and Progressive supranuclear palsy Prevalence and INcidence (PiPPIN) Study, I examine the frequency, characteristics and components of apathy and impulsivity across the frontotemporal lobar degeneration spectrum.

A principal component analysis of the neuropsychological data identified eight distinct components of apathy and impulsivity, separating patient ratings, carer ratings and behavioural tasks. Apathy and impulsivity measures were positively correlated, frequently loading onto the same components and providing evidence of their overlap. The data confirmed that apathy and impulsivity are common across the spectrum of frontotemporal lobar degeneration syndromes.

Voxel based morphometry revealed distinct neural correlates for the components of apathy and impulsivity. Patient ratings correlated with white matter changes in the corticospinal tracts, which may reflect retained insight into their physical impairments. Carer ratings correlated with grey and white matter changes in frontostriatal, frontotemporal and brainstem systems, which have previously been implicated in motivation, arousal and goal directed behaviour. Response inhibition deficits on behavioural tasks correlated with focal frontal cortical atrophy in areas implicated in goal-directed behaviour and cognitive control.

Diffusion tensor imaging was highly sensitive to the white matter changes underlying apathy and impulsivity in frontotemporal lobar degeneration syndromes. Diffusion tensor imaging findings were largely consistent with voxel-based morphometry, with carer ratings reflecting widespread changes while objective measures showed changes in focal, task-specific brain regions. White matter abnormalities often extended beyond observed grey matter changes, providing supportive evidence that white matter dysfunction represents a core pathophysiology in frontotemporal lobar degeneration.

Apathy was a significant predictor of death within two and a half years from assessment, consistent with studies linking apathy to poor outcomes. The prognostic importance of apathy warrants more accurate measurement tools to facilitate clinical trials. Although causality remains unclear, the influence of apathy on survival suggests effective symptomatic treatments may also prove disease-modifying.

These findings have several implications. First, clinical studies for apathy/impulsivity in frontotemporal lobar degeneration syndromes should target patients who present with these symptoms, irrespective of their diagnostic category. Second, data-driven approaches can inform the choice of assessment tools for clinical trials, and their link to neural drivers of apathy and impulsivity. Third, the components and their neural correlates provide a principled means to measure (and interpret) the effects of novel treatments in the context of frontotemporal lobar degeneration.




Rowe, James B


Apathy, Impulsivity, Frontotemporal Dementia, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, Corticobasal Syndrome, Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Voxel Based Morphometry, Diffusion Weighted Imaging, Principal Component Analysis, Survival


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre, the Cambridge Home and EU Scholarship Scheme, the James F McDonnell Foundation (21st Century Science Initiative for Understanding Human Cognition), Wellcome Trust (103838); Medical Research Council (MC US A060 30PQ, and RG62761), the Cambridge Brain Bank, PSP association and the Evelyn Trust.