Chapel Hill, N.C. — For decades, scientists and doctors have tried to unlock the mysteries of emotional life – from trying to produce the positive feelings of love, joy and happiness while controlling sadness, anger or fear.
In recent years, researchers have discovered where some emotions are generated in the brain, allowing doctors to begin fighting degenerative brain disorders that eat away at memories and emotions.
For the family of 59-year-old Arnette Lester, the new discoveries are a positive step forward that came just a bit too late.
Nine years ago, Lester's husband, Paul, said he noticed that his wife – a nurse for years – didn't respond normally when her mother was dealing with severe back pain.
"She wasn't as concerned as what a nurse would show, or what a daughter would show," Paul Lester said.
As time went on, Lester said his wife grew even more distant, not showing concern about her marriage or family. Tests for Alzheimer's were negative, but eventually doctors diagnosed Lester with frontotemporal degeneration, a disorder that causes people to lose touch with how they feel.
Thanks to brain imaging that reveals where different emotional responses are generated, doctors were able to diagnose Arnette Lester with FTP. Unfortunately for her and her family, however, years of apathy meant that she would never be the same.
By the time Paul Lester learned what FTD would do to his wife, he could no longer leave her alone.
"I readily found out that I was no longer spouse, I was care-giver," he said.
For other families, however, the brain imaging technology and new treatments could be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Preliminary studies are underway to look at the impact Oxytocin, a natural hormone, can have on diseases like FTD and autism.
"(Oxytocin) may have a beneficial impact in helping to restore, at least partially, the normal social behaviors," University of North Carolina Hospitals neurologist Daniel Kaufer said.