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2023 Alzheimer's Association Clinical Scientist Fellowship to Promote Diversity (AACSF-D)

MEG Predictors of Social Learning in Early AD and Behavioral-Variant FTD

How may the ability to learn social behaviors become altered in the early stages of different dementias?

Yu Chen, M.D., Ph.D.
University of California, San Francisco
San Francisco, CA - United States


Dementias are often progressive disorders, which start many years before memory loss and other cognitive symptoms become evident. Scientists, therefore, are studying how early brain changes characterize different types of dementia. Such work could lead to more effective methods of diagnosing and treating dementias at their earliest stages, when therapies can be most effective. 

Two types of dementia are Alzheimer’s, which involves the clumping of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain, and behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD), which impacts the brain’s frontal lobes (the areas behind your forehead) and temporal lobes (the regions behind your ears). Studies suggest that during the early stages of both disorders, an individual’s “social learning” ability (the ability to learn new social behaviors) may become altered, though to different degrees. Research has also found that these alterations may be linked to nerve cell activity changes in certain brain cell networks. Scientists, however, have not identified exactly how social learning is impacted in different dementias, partly because they have not yet developed optimal methods of assessing social learning ability.  

Research Plan

Dr. Yu Chen and colleagues will explore  how social learning deficits may be an important early-stage factor in both Alzheimer’s and behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia. They will recruit 60 older individuals: 20 with early bvFTD, 20 with early Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment (MCI, a condition of subtle memory loss that may precede Alzheimer’s), and 20 with no cognitive impairment. First, the researchers will develop a new test to assess social learning. They will then administer this test, as well as another “non-social” learning test, to the individuals to look for differences in how the three groups perform on the different tests. Next, individuals will undertake the cognitive tests while also undergoing magnetoencephalography (MEG) scans, which visualize their brain's electrical activity. The investigators will use these MEG results to assess how learning-related activity in different brain cell networks becomes altered in Alzheimer’s and bvFTD.      


This project could help clarify how social learning and behavior are impacted in the early stages of brain disease. They could also lead to novel, more precisely targeted methods of diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s, bvFTD and other causes of dementia.

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