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Tonight on 'Nightly News': a different kind of dementia

Frontotemporal dementia affects a different area of the brain than Alzheimer's, destroying the frontal lobes and spurring big personality changes. NBC's Robert Bazell reports.

By Robert Bazell, Correspondent, NBC News

Tonight on "Nightly News" we report on a condition called frontotemporal dementia.  It is also known as Pick’s disease, but usually by its initials: FTD. 

Dementia is always a tragedy for family members but FTD is especially difficult.  It strikes relatively young people who are often in their 40s, 50s and 60s. And because it destroys the frontal lobes of the brain, the first noticeable damage is often emotional changes -- not memory loss. 

People can't believe their loved ones no longer seem to care for them and they often waste years and much money sending them to psychiatrists. Symptoms often include a loss of inhibition.

Barbara Whitmarsh, the woman we feature in tonight’s report, was once meticulous about watching her weight. But in the past few months she's gained 30 pounds. Other patients lose their sense of manners, and even sexual inhibitions, embarrassing their families.

A few decades ago, doctors thought the majority of the people with dementia suffered from “hardening of the arteries” in the brain.  Then scientists discovered that Alzheimer’s disease was the biggest cause, especially in older people. But now, as brain science has grown more sophisticated, researchers realize that other forms of dementia are more common than realized.  FTD, though relatively rare, is responsible for most forms of dementia in people under 60.

There is no cure for FTD, although scientists hope that studying it will yield not just treatments, but clues to understanding other brain conditions including autism, Huntington's disease and Parkinson’s disease.

For now, one of the most critical things for those who have a family member with FTD is to get support. Find resources and more information at The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration.