Conference Coverage

Mindfulness meditation may boost cognition in MS



Patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) may be able to improve cognitive function through a brief course in mindfulness meditation, a new report suggests.

Heena Manglani, a graduate student at Ohio State University.

Heena Manglani

“The present study demonstrated significant improvement in processing speed, a core area of impairment in individuals with MS, following 4 weeks of mindfulness meditation,” said lead author Heena R. Manglani, a graduate student at the Ohio State University, Columbus. She spoke in an interview and in a presentation about the study findings at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers.

An estimated 43%-70% of people with MS experience cognitive decline. This decline “has a sophisticated neuroanatomic and pathophysiologic background and disturbs such vital cognitive domains as speed of information processing, memory, attention, executive functions, and visual perceptual function,” reported the authors of a 2017 review (Rev Neurosci. 2017 Nov 27;28[8]:845-860).

For the new study, researchers tested two strategies for cognitive enhancement in patients with MS. All study participants were aged 31-59 years and relapse free within the previous 30 days; most had relapsing remitting MS, and most did not show signs of cognitive decline.

The researchers assigned 20 patients to a 4-week adaptive computerized cognitive training program and 20 patients to a 4-week mindfulness meditation training program. Another 21 patients were assigned to a control group.

The adaptive training program relied on computerized games designed to boost processing speed, attention, and working memory. The mindfulness training focused on components such as awareness of breathing and of bodily sensations.

Researchers found that “the magnitude of cognitive gain from pre- to post training was greatest in participants in the mindfulness group, who did better than participants in either of the other two groups,” Ms. Manglani said.

Compared with the adaptive cognitive training and the control group, she said, the mindfulness meditation group showed statistically significant improvement in processing speed per scores on the Symbol Digit Modalities Test, which rose from 52.2 before training to 58.4 post training.

The interventions did not appear to have any effect on Paced Auditory Serial Addition scores, which measure working memory.

The findings suggest that “less than 20 hours of mindfulness may be effective in significantly improving processing speed in MS,” Ms. Manglani said. “It is much shorter than a typically delivered program. We hypothesize that you are training attention with mindfulness training. Attention has a lot of overlap with processing speed.”

Ms. Manglani noted that this was a pilot study, and she acknowledged that fairly few participants – only five or six in each group – showed signs of cognitive decline. The study also did not explore whether cognitive improvements translated to real-life changes in cognition.

“This effect needs to be replicated in a larger sample,” Ms. Manglani said, “and future studies are needed to establish the lasting effects of such training and how improvements in cognitive function may generalize to greater engagement in vocational and leisure activities and higher quality of life.”

The study was funded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the National Institutes of Health. The authors reported no relevant disclosures except for one coauthor who received honoraria from Sanofi Genzyme and funding from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the NIH.

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