Under the Hood

Frontotemporal Dementia May Cause Eating Disorders, Bizarre Food Obsessions

Does dementia cause someone to steal food off of another's plate or obsessively eat strange foods and even objects? A team of researchers from the International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA) aimed to better understand the abnormal eating behaviors commonly associated with the disease. Their findings, published in the journal Neurocase, could have implications for bizarre eating patterns in healthy people, too.

"These behaviors are problematic, of course, socially, but also with regard to patients' health as they tend to gain weight," said the study’s co-author Marilena Aiello, a cognitive researcher at SISSA, in a statement. "Some people lose weight because they eat a narrow range of foods in an obsessive way. The origin of food anomalies in frontotemporal dementia is likely due to many factors. It may involve an alteration of the nervous system, characterized by an altered assessment of the body's signals, such as hunger, satiety, and appetite.”

Eating Behaviors Strange eating behaviors, like stealing food, may be caused by a common form of dementia. Photo courtesy of Pixbay, public domain

For the study, Aiello and her team examined a large body of research on how frontotemporal dementia, an umbrella term for the conditions that result from progressive degeneration of the brain's temporal and frontal lobes, affects patients. These areas of the brain play a significant role in decision-making, behavioral control, emotion, and language. And they found a link within areas of the brain that regulate the interactions between how much food is consumed and the energy it takes to burn the calories off. They suspect damage in the hypothalamus — the region responsible for hunger, thirst, energy, sleep, and mood — may be the root cause of abnormal eating behaviors. 

"There are probably sensory and cognitive factors that can complicate the picture,” Aiello said. "In patients who eat objects, for example, there is perhaps a problem of recognizing the object of and its function.”

In one case in 2006, a woman diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia would only eat bananas and gallons of milk, hence her nickname “Banana Lady.” It was only until after she passed away that the doctor’s could confirm the disease was the underlying cause of her diet. While some patients like the Banana Lady can become obsessed with a type of food, others may steal food from another person’s plate or confuse the purpose of certain foods, such as mixing up wine for salad dressing. 

"All of these mechanisms are interesting for understanding the disease and creating optimal treatments to counteract symptoms,” Aiello said. “At the same time, they reveal abnormalities that may be present, albeit with varied intensities, in healthy individuals with irregular eating habits. This could be helpful for understanding abnormal eating behavior in healthy people as well.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the nerve cell damage caused by frontotemproal dementia can also lead to deterioration in both behavior and personality, along with some of the bizarre eating patterns or preferences. Since the disease can progress anywhere between two and 20 years, the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration said it's difficult to diagnose and track. However, experts predict potential therapies will arrive within the next few years. 

Source: Rumiati RI, Aiello M, and Silani V. You Stole My Food! Eating Alterations In Frontotemporal Dementia. Neurocase. 2016.

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