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Assessing moral emotions: a potential tool to diagnose dementia

Researchers developed a new assessment tool to diagnose dementia that evaluates moral emotions.

There are many different types of dementia. Frontotemporal dementia is a type of dementia that is caused by degenerative changes in the frontal regions of the brain, which is often associated with social cognitive impairments. Frontotemporal dementia patients have problems with emotional expression and recognition, social decisions, empathy, and moral judgements. This can lead to antisocial, and sometimes criminal, behaviours.

Moral emotions differ from basic emotions as they are dependent on cultural context and moral rules involving people and are the basis of moral cognition and moral judgements. Moral emotions are essential in human cooperative and behavioural interactions. They can be defined as “affective experiences promoting cooperation, group cohesion and reorganization”. The seven types of moral emotions include anger, disgust, shame, guilt, pity, gratitude, and admiration.

Researchers in France created The Moral Emotions Assessment (MEA) tool to diagnose dementia by assessing moral emotions through ‘moral scenarios’. In a recent study, the researchers assessed and compared MEA results of patients with frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer’s dementia, and a healthy control group. They published their findings in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Study participants were presented with 42 ‘moral scenarios’ designed to elicit moral emotions. Participants had four answers to select from that best represented the emotion they would feel in the described scenario. The researchers also included scenarios that would elicit a similar emotion, but without the moral association. For example, admiration can be an emotion felt for an act of kindness (moral emotion) and for a building’s architecture (extra-moral emotion). The difference lies in the context of the scenario.

The study’s results found that patients with frontotemporal dementia had poorer performance with moral emotions compared to Alzheimer’s patients and healthy control participants. Their performance in extra-moral emotions was also impaired compared to Alzheimer’s patients and healthy participants. Contrastingly, patients with Alzheimer’s dementia did not show impairment in moral or extra-moral emotions, this group performed similarly to the healthy group.

These findings are consistent with and strengthen evidence from other studies that have also observed impairment in emotion expression and recognition. This study also presents The Moral Emotions Assessment (MEA) as a new tool to diagnose dementia, distinguishing between frontotemporal and Alzheimer’s dementia.

Written by Maggie Leung, PharmD


Teichmann, M., Daigmorte, C., Funkiewiez, A., Sanches, C., Camus, M., Mauras, T., . . . Azuar, C. (2019). Moral Emotions in Frontotemporal Dementia. Journal of Alzheimers Disease, 69(3), 887-896. doi:10.3233/jad-180991

Moral emotions, a diagnotic tool for frontotemporal dementia? (2019, June 14). Retrieved from

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Maggie Leung PharmD
Maggie Leung PharmD
Maggie is a registered pharmacist and has a PharmD from the University of Toronto. She currently works in the pharmacy informatics field as a clinician applications consultant. In her role, she supports the integration and optimization of technology in healthcare. She enjoys learning about the latest in scientific research and sharing that knowledge through her writing for Medical News Bulletin. Maggie is a big dog lover and enjoys traveling and spending time with her friends and family.


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