Decision-making in frontotemporal dementia: clinical, theoretical and legal implications

Dement Geriatr Cogn Disord. 2011;32(1):11-7. doi: 10.1159/000329912. Epub 2011 Aug 4.


Background: The behavioral variant of frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD) is characterized by progressive changes in personality and social interaction, loss of empathy, disinhibition and impulsivity, most of which generally precede the onset of cognitive deficits. In this study, we investigated decision-making cognition in a group of patients with an early bvFTD diagnosis whose standard neuropsychological performance was within normal range for all variables.

Methods: The Iowa Gambling Task was administered to this group of early bvFTD patients, to a group of early bvFTD patients who had shown impaired performance on the classical neuropsychological battery and to healthy controls.

Results: Decision-making was impaired in both bvFTD patient groups, whether they had shown impaired or normal performance in the classical neuropsychological evaluation.

Conclusions: Patients with early bvFTD may perform normally on standard cognitive tests, and yet develop severe deficits in judgment and decision-making. In many current legal systems, early bvFTD patients showing preserved cognitive functioning who commit unlawful acts run the risk of not being able to plead insane or not guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibility beyond reasonable doubt. This represents a unique legal and ethical dilemma. Our findings have important implications for medicolegal decisions relating to capacity and culpability, and regarding the philosophical concept of 'free will'.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • Female
  • Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration / psychology*
  • Gambling
  • Humans
  • Insanity Defense*
  • Judgment
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Verbal Behavior / physiology