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Heightened emotional contagion in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease is associated with temporal lobe degeneration


Emotional changes are common in mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer's disease (AD). Intrinsic connectivity imaging studies suggest that default mode network degradation in AD is accompanied by the release of an emotion-relevant salience network. We investigated whether emotional contagion, an evolutionarily conserved affect-sharing mechanism, is higher in MCI and AD secondary to biological alterations in neural networks that support emotion. We measured emotional contagion in 237 participants (111 healthy controls, 62 patients with MCI, and 64 patients with AD) with the Interpersonal Reactivity Index Personal Distress subscale. Depressive symptoms were evaluated with the Geriatric Depression Scale. Participants underwent structural MRI, and voxel-based morphometry was used to relate whole-brain maps to emotional contagion. Analyses of covariance found significantly higher emotional contagion at each stage of disease progression [controls < MCI (P < 0.01) and MCI < AD (P < 0.001)]. Depressive symptoms were also higher in patients compared with controls [controls < MCI (P < 0.01) and controls < AD (P < 0.0001)]. Higher emotional contagion (but not depressive symptoms) was associated with smaller volume in right inferior, middle, and superior temporal gyri (PFWE < 0.05); right temporal pole, anterior hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus; and left middle temporal gyrus (all P < 0.001, uncorrected). These findings suggest that in MCI and AD, neurodegeneration of temporal lobe structures important for affective signal detection and emotion inhibition are associated with up-regulation of emotion-generating mechanisms. Emotional contagion, a quantifiable index of empathic reactivity that is present in other species, may be a useful tool with which to study emotional alterations in animal models of AD.

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