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New Study Explores Changes in “Social Cognition” in People with MS

May 31, 2017

SUMMARY
  • A new study from researchers in Portugal explored why “social cognition” – how people process social situations – might be affected in some people with MS.
  • Using tests involving facial expressions and other ways to measure how well people can read others’ beliefs, desires and intentions, the researchers confirmed that people with MS tended to have deficits in social cognition, compared to those without MS.
  • They also found that worse scores on social cognition tests were associated with more MRI-detected damage in specific areas of the brain, suggesting disruption in the network of brain connections that are involved in social cognition.  
  • This study helps illuminate an underexplored area. More research is needed to understand social cognition deficits and determine whether and what type of training might help address them.
  • The team (Sonia Batista, MD, and colleagues at the University of Coimbra, Portugal) report their findings in Neurology (published online May 31, 2017). 
DETAILS
Background: Cognitive changes are common during the course of multiple sclerosis, but the biological basis for them is not completely understood. Researchers are beginning to tease this out, for example, research shows that depression is linked to brain volume loss in the hippocampus, a region deep in the brain known to be important in memory processes and the regulation of mood and emotions.
 
Studies indicate that one possible cognitive change associated with MS involves social cognition – how people process and apply information about other people and social situations. Social support is crucial to quality of life, especially for people with chronic diseases such as MS, so it’s important to understand what difficulties people with MS may face socially, and how these can be overcome.
 
The Study: The team recruited 60 people with relapsing-remitting or secondary progressive MS and 60 people without MS. They administered “Theory of Mind” tests, which use facial expressions and other ways to measure how well people can read others’ beliefs, desires and intentions. The tests involve looking at photographs of eyes or videos of people and then choosing words that best describe thoughts and feelings associated with the photographs and videos. All participants underwent brain imaging as well, including “diffusion tensor imaging,” which distinguishes damage to myelin, the substance that encases nerve fibers, and is damaged in MS.
 
Confirming previous reports, the team found that people with MS had significantly lower correct responses on the Theory of Mind tests compared with those without MS. The scores were not associated with physical disability levels or how long the person had lived with MS. However, lower scores were associated with the total volume of imaging-detected damage in the brain. They were also associated with the loss of myelin in areas of the brain thought to be associated with social cognition, the so-called “social network” of the brain.
 
The team (Sonia Batista, MD, and colleagues at the University of Coimbra, Portugal) report their findings in Neurology (published online May 31, 2017). The study was funded by Biogen.
 
Comment: This study helps illuminate an underexplored area in MS. “Many researchers are turning their attention to the area of social cognition, as it gains recognition as a potentially significant factor in individuals’ quality of life,” notes clinical psychologist Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, Vice President, Health Care Delivery and Policy Research at the National MS Society. More research is needed to understand social cognition deficits and determine whether and what type of training might help address such deficits.

About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are leading to better understanding and moving us closer to a world free of MS. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with at least two to three times more women than men being diagnosed with the disease. MS affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide.

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