A recent study suggests that MS disease activity could damage an area of the brain responsible for processing facial emotions and other social cues.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable disease that can damage key parts of the central nervous system and may cause a host of debilitating symptoms. Many people associate MS with the gradual loss of motor function and sensation, but this does not complete the picture of this complex condition.

A recent study asserts that MS can actually alter the way people with the disease perceive and process social situations. And it may even shed some light on why some people with MS may easily misread a situation and react differently than expected.

MS disease activity can trigger changes in the brain’s white matter, which controls many higher brain functions. These changes can lead to deficiencies in both theory of mind (ToM) and facial emotion recognition, which are significant when compared with people who don’t have MS.

ToM is the ability to attribute mental states such as intentions and beliefs to oneself and others, and to understand that these states may be different than one’s own. For example, someone might be talking, explaining a situation with no malicious intent, but a person with MS could misinterpret the facial expressions of the person speaking and perceive them as angry.

This is not the first study to look into ToM and MS. Social cognition and MS have been studied for years, and the research points to significant differences between people with MS and control groups. A recent analysis of the connection between MS and ToM covered 21 studies that provided data on over 1,200 people with MS. The researchers’ analyses showed similar levels of cognitive decline than what were noted in the new study.

Social cognitive deficits are often overlooked, but offer significant opportunities to improve social functioning and quality of life. Human connectivity is critical for those living with MS, but cognitive issues can interfere.

According to the National MS Society, cognitive dysfunction could be present in over 60 percent of people with MS, and has been reported at all stages and in all subtypes of the disease.

While the deficits in ToM and facial emotion recognition among those with MS were not as severe as those identified in people with schizophrenia or in other neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, the differences were significant.

The results of these studies emphasize the need to increase awareness of social cognitive dysfunction. They also support the monitoring of social cognition to be incorporated into routine neurologic assessments.

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ToM cognitive difficulties happen in all levels of multiple sclerosis, especially in the speed which information is processed. Clinical studies are looking at how to remedy ToM deficiency through meditation and, of all things, video games.

One study out of Germany found significant indications of a positive relationship between mindful meditation and improving age-related brain atrophy, suggesting the need for further studies. The Journal of Cognitive Enhancement recently published an article covering a variety of studies showing successful results from practicing mindful meditation and brain training in improving cognitive function.

Another newly published study from researchers at the New York University Langone Medical Center, showed that brain training had significantly greater impact on improving cognition in people with MS than the computer games (BrainHQ by Posit Science) used by a comparison group. The brain training was funded by the NMSS.

Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science, explained to Healthline that “brain training works by targeting different parts of the brain but with one goal: faster and more accurate brain processing, leading to better memory and problem solving.”

Mahncke explained the importance of modern thinking and understanding that “a brain is plastic and has the ability to rewire itself, that the brain is not like a computer chip that wears out.”

The National MS Society is following this topic closely and provides suggestions for people with MS with cognitive difficulties in the booklet Managing Cognitive Problems in MS.

Editor’s Note: Caroline Craven is a patient expert living with MS. Her award winning blog is GirlwithMS.com, and she can be found @thegirlwithms.