Muireann Irish

"Beauty and the brain" - A novel approach to anhedonia in dementia

Muireann Irish
2015 AADRF-Victoria Project Grant
Project Snapshot

Try to imagine a world in which you could no longer experience beauty or pleasure in your daily life. Anhedonia refers to a loss of pleasure and has typically been studied in psychiatric disorders. Many of the diagnostic features of frontotemporal dementia, however, suggest the presence of anhedonia, such as social withdrawal, loss of interest in previous hobbies and activities, and apathy. The implications of anhedonia are stark, yet no study to our knowledge has systematically investigated anhedonia in younger-onset dementia. We will measure the experience of pleasure in response to viewing pieces of art and listening to music. Neuroimaging analyses will allow us to determine the association between damage to the brain in dementia and anhedonia. Our study will provide critical data regarding the subjective experience of the individual living with dementia and the utility of music and art to improve overall wellbeing and quality of life.

Detailed Project Summary

A diagnosis of dementia represents a devastating event for the individual, their family, and wider social network. Research aimed at understanding the subjective experience of the individual with dementia is lacking, yet studies of this nature are pivotal to improve patient wellbeing. This study aims to determine the extent to which an inability to experience pleasure, “anhedonia”, is present in younger-onset dementia. We propose that many characteristic features of dementia, such as apathy and social withdrawal, can be explained by the presence of anhedonia, yet this area has been neglected in dementia research. We will use a novel experimental task to measure the individual’s experience of pleasure while viewing pieces of art and listening to musical excerpts. Self-report and caregiver questionnaires will establish how the experience of pleasure changes from pre- to post-symptom onset in dementia. Finally, we will determine the neural substrates of anhedonia using advanced structural neuroimaging analyses. Our convergent approach will yield pivotal information regarding the subjective experience of the dementia patient in their everyday life. We will determine the effectiveness of music and art to improve patient wellbeing, leading to the development of targeted guidelines to enrich the everyday life of the individual living with dementia.

Where are they now?

Dr Irish is a cognitive neuroscientist specialising in understanding how we engage in sophisticated cognitive acts such as remembering the past, imagining the future, and interacting successfully in social situations. She is a Research Fellow (ARC DECRA) in the School of Psychology at UNSW and conducts her research at Frontier research group on frontotemporal dementia at Brain Mind Centre.