Is the emotion recognition deficit associated with frontotemporal dementia caused by selective inattention to diagnostic facial features?

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Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is a debilitating neurodegenerative disorder characterized by severely impaired social and emotional behaviour, including emotion recognition deficits. Though fear recognition impairments seen in particular neurological and developmental disorders can be ameliorated by reallocating attention to critical facial features, the possibility that similar benefits can be conferred to patients with FTD has yet to be explored. In the current study, we examined the impact of presenting distinct regions of the face (whole face, eyes-only, and eyes-removed) on the ability to recognize expressions of anger, fear, disgust, and happiness in 24 patients with FTD and 24 healthy controls. A recognition deficit was demonstrated across emotions by patients with FTD relative to controls. Crucially, removal of diagnostic facial features resulted in an appropriate decline in performance for both groups; furthermore, patients with FTD demonstrated a lack of disproportionate improvement in emotion recognition accuracy as a result of isolating critical facial features relative to controls. Thus, unlike some neurological and developmental disorders featuring amygdala dysfunction, the emotion recognition deficit observed in FTD is not likely driven by selective inattention to critical facial features. Patients with FTD also mislabelled negative facial expressions as happy more often than controls, providing further evidence for abnormalities in the representation of positive affect in FTD. This work suggests that the emotional expression recognition deficit associated with FTD is unlikely to be rectified by adjusting selective attention to diagnostic features, as has proven useful in other select disorders.

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