Social cognition plays a key role in everyday lives of people with multiple sclerosis

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Longitudinal study by international MS research team shows that people with relapsing-remitting MS performed significantly lower in several social cognition domains, despite being classified as “cognitively normal.”

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Credit: Kessler Foundation/Jody Banks

East Hanover, NJ. May 3, 2021. An international team of multiple sclerosis (MS) researchers showed that longitudinal changes in social cognition are associated with psychological outcomes of daily living, suggesting that social cognition may exert a central role in people with MS. The article, “Social Cognition in Multiple Sclerosis: A 3-Year Follow-Up MRI and Behavioral Study” (doi: 10.3390/diagnostics11030484) was published on March 9, 2021, in Diagnostics. It is available open access at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8001246/.

The authors are Helen M. Genova, PhD, of Kessler Foundation’s Center for Neuropsychology and Neuroscience Research, and Stefano Ziccardi, PhD, Marco Pitteri, PhD, and Massimiliano Calabrese, MD, of the University of Verona. Dr. Genova also has an academic appointment at Rutgers University.

Some recent MS research, including work led by Dr. Genova, has shown that social cognition deficits may affect people with MS who otherwise have no other cognitive impairments. Social cognition, which is required to understand and process the emotions of others, is an extremely important skill set for forming successful relationships with others, and deficits in this area can significantly affect a person’s quality of life.

Previous studies investigating the prevalence of social cognition impairment among people with MS suggested that impairment tracked with symptoms such as cognitive fatigue. More research was needed to clarify these results and determine whether changes to the area of the brain called the amygdala–known to be associated with emotions–correlated with social cognition. Moreover, no study had investigated the social cognition performance in people with MS with a longitudinal perspective, meaning that no data existed on the evolution of social cognition deficits over time.

In this three-year follow-up study, MS researchers conducted a longitudinal investigation of the evolution of social cognition deficits and amygdala damage in a group of 26 cognitively-normal people with relapsing-remitting MS. They analyzed the association between social cognition and several domains related to psychological well-being. Concurrently, they investigated the evolution of amygdala lesion burden and atrophy and their association with social cognition performance.

To gather data, the team used a battery of neuropsychological tests; social cognition tasks to assess theory of mind, facial emotion recognition, and empathy; and 3T-MRI to analyze structural amygdala damage. They then compared these findings to baseline data collected from participants three years prior.

The results confirmed that, despite being classified as cognitively normal, people with relapsing-remitting MS showed a significantly lower performance in several social cognition domains as compared to a matched group of healthy controls. These domains include facial emotion recognition, in particular fear and anger, as well as empathy. Longitudinal changes in the social cognition domain were also found to be associated with psychological outcomes of daily living, such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, and social functioning quality of life.

“We confirmed the longitudinal stability of social cognition deficits in cognitively-normal people with relapsing-remitting MS, mirroring the amygdala structural damage and psychological well-being,” said Dr. Genova. “These results confirm that social cognition exerts a key role in MS, affecting individuals’ everyday lives. Our research highlights the need to identify treatments to improve social cognition in this population.”

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Funding sources: This research received no external funding.

About MS Research at Kessler Foundation

Kessler Foundation’s cognitive rehabilitation research in MS is funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, National MS Society, Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers, the Patterson Trust, Biogen Idec, Hearst Foundations, the International Progressive MS Alliance, and Kessler Foundation. Under the leadership of John DeLuca, PhD, senior VP for Research & Training, and Nancy Chiaravalloti, PhD, director of the Centers for Neuropsychology, Neuroscience and Traumatic Brain Injury Research, scientists have made important contributions to the knowledge of cognitive decline in MS and developed new treatments. Clinical studies span new learning, memory, executive function, attention and processing speed, emotional processing, employment, cognitive fatigue, and in the interaction of cognitive and physical deficits. Research tools include innovative applications of neuroimaging, mobile imaging technologies, eye-tracking, and virtual reality. Neuroimaging studies are conducted at the research-dedicated Rocco Ortenzio Neuroimaging Center at Kessler Foundation. Kessler researchers and clinicians have faculty appointments in the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

About Kessler Foundation

Kessler Foundation, a major nonprofit organization in the field of disability, is a global leader in rehabilitation research that seeks to improve cognition, mobility and long-term outcomes, including employment, for people with neurological disabilities caused by diseases and injuries of the brain and spinal cord. Kessler Foundation leads the nation in funding innovative programs that expand opportunities for employment for people with disabilities. For more information, visit KesslerFoundation.org.

For more information, or to interview an expert, contact: Carolann Murphy, 973.324.8382, [email protected]

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Related Journal Article

http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/diagnostics11030484

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