Cambridge trial to explore effects of hormone on frontotemporal dementia

Posted on 20th May 2015

Researchers in Cambridge are embarking on a pilot trial to investigate the potential of the hormone oxytocin to combat early symptoms of frontotemporal dementia (FTD), backed by a grant from Alzheimer’s Research UK.

The UK’s leading dementia research charity, which is based in Great Abington near Cambridge, has awarded £29,827 to University of Cambridge researchers for an early-stage clinical trial in people who are showing early signs of the disease. The announcement comes on International Clinical Trials Day (20 May), an event celebrated around the world to raise awareness of the importance of health research.

FTD is a relatively rare form of dementia, but is the second most common cause of the condition in people under 65. The disease causes distressing symptoms such as a loss of empathy and inappropriate behaviour, which can be extremely challenging for carers. In some rare cases, the disease is caused by a genetic mutation, and the new trial will recruit people who carry this gene.

Dr Michael Hornberger and his team will use their funding to investigate the effects of the hormone oxytocin – sometimes known as the ‘bonding’ hormone – which is produced naturally in the brain, and has been linked to social bonding and feelings of empathy. Dr Hornberger and his team want to find out whether the hormone can help increase empathy and social awareness in people with FTD, helping them with their challenging behavioural symptoms.

As part of a small phase 2 trial at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, the researchers will compare the effects of oxytocin to a placebo over two four-week periods. The trial will recruit people who are already enrolled in the Genetic Frontotemporal dementia Initiative (GENFI), a long-term study of people who are genetically predisposed to develop FTD. The researchers will test the hormone in people who are beginning to show changes in behaviour, but whose symptoms are not yet severe enough for them to have a diagnosis of FTD. It’s hoped that treatments may have more chance of success if given at this early stage, before the disease has caused excessive damage to the brain.

The team will explore the hormone’s effects for these people, using newly-developed tests to measure changes in empathy. If the trial is successful, it’s hoped that phase 3 trials could begin to investigate oxytocin’s potential in much larger groups of people.

Dr Hornberger said:

“This funding is a real boost to our research and will allow us to understand whether oxytocin might bring benefits for people with frontotemporal dementia. The symptoms of frontotemporal dementia can be hugely challenging, and a treatment to reduce some of these symptoms could have an enormous impact on quality of life, both for people with the disease and their carers. Our study is a small, early-stage trial, which we hope will lead to much larger studies, and until those are completed we don’t recommend people use oxytocin without talking to a doctor.”

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“We’re delighted to be supporting this study, which will try to address some of the most distressing symptoms of frontotemporal dementia. Controlled trials like this one are crucial in order to be sure whether a treatment holds potential benefits, and we look forward to seeing the results in due course. With no treatments currently available for frontotemporal dementia, there’s an urgent need for research into the condition. We rely on public donations to be able to fund our research, and it’s thanks to our wonderful supporters that we’re able to back this study.”

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