Frontotemporal dementia or autism spectrum disorder? Refining the diagnosis of emerging social impairments in older adults

Published on: June 30, 2020

Emerging changes in behaviour and thinking abilities in older adults are often thought to indicate the presence of dementia. In recent years, however, we have become increasingly aware of individuals initially diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia – a younger-onset dementia affecting primarily personality and behaviour – but who show very little change over many years.

We believe that these individuals may in fact have undiagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder. Little is known about cognition in people with autism spectrum disorder as they get older.

Incorrect diagnoses between these two very different brain conditions have major implications for their management, care and support for the diagnosed individuals and their families. This research is a novel collaboration between experts in the fields of dementia and autism spectrum disorders and consumer associations.

The aims of this project are to recruit individuals diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia and autism spectrum disorder and to systematically compare their behaviour, thinking abilities (memory, attention, language, executive function), as well as their brain integrity with MRI over time. Findings from this research will provide the scientific framework to develop care program that are relevant and specific to each disorder.

This research will contribute to a better understanding of the many presentations of dementia syndromes and the overlap with psychiatric brain disorders in older adults. In doing so, this research will maximise the quality of life of individuals diagnosed with these disorders by providing relevant care and support programs.

The Team

Olivier Piguet is an NHMRC Senior Research Fellow and Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Sydney.

A registered clinical neuropsychologist with over 20 years experience in the field of dementia, he is the director of FRONTIER, the frontotemporal dementia research group at the Brain & Mind Centre, the University of Sydney.