Mindfulness training may help counter the thinking and emotional difficulties caused by multiple sclerosis.
In a small test study, people with multiple sclerosis (MS) who had four weeks of mindfulness training emerged with better emotional control and faster thinking.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease in which the immune system attacks the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. This interferes with communication in the brain and between the brain and body, leading to worsening mental and physical problems. An estimated one million people in the United States are affected.
“Emotional upheaval is part and parcel of living with multiple sclerosis — there’s no cure, per se,” said Nicholas Larocca, a National Multiple Sclerosis Society consultant.
“You can look at someone who has mild multiple sclerosis. They can have cognitive problems much more than physical problems,” he added.
In a pilot study, Ohio State University researchers tested 47 women and 14 men with MS on emotional control, mental speed and short-term memory.
For four weeks, the study participants were divided into three groups. One group received mindfulness training; a second received computerized “adaptive cognitive” training aimed at focusing their attention; and a control group received no training until the study ended.
Mindfulness training teaches people to stay focused in the present, helping them look at problems objectively and accept without judgment, said study leader Ruchika Prakash, director of OSU’s Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Brain Imaging in Columbus.
Prakash and her team found that those who had mindfulness training were more able than the other groups to control their emotions and their worry decreased. The mindfulness group also performed better in a game that demonstrated how fast they understood and completed thinking tasks.
The researchers suggested that the mindfulness training may have boosted participants’ short-term “working” memory by increasing the speed at which members became aware of changes.
Dr. Pria Anand, an assistant professor of neurology at Boston University Medical, reviewed the findings.
She said muscle control problems associated with MS often get more attention than their psychological struggles.
“Depression is really common” in people with MS, Anand said, as the mental difficulties are “really devastating to the quality of life.”
Mindfulness training might help counter some of these difficulties, Anand said, but more research is needed to understand the role it could play in therapy.
“There’s so many things we can’t fix with medication,” she said. “This could be a sort of a tool to offer people.”
Larocca said that difficulty focusing “is one of the hallmarks of multiple sclerosis,” and it can make holding down a job or keeping track of personal finances a challenge.
He said he had one patient who noted that she could still do her job, but it just took longer.
Among people with MS, 30% to 50% have psychiatric problems, Prakash said, and some estimates are as high as 70%. She gave the example of how mindfulness might help a patient learning their disease has progressed.
“You hear bad news, how terrible things are going to happen, to be in a wheelchair,” she said. “You start catastrophizing.”
Mindfulness could help a person to take a breath and think about the situation, Prakash said. The training can be costly, she noted, but her department is putting up free “how-to” videos on YouTube.
One advantage of mindfulness training is that it can be practiced at home, Larocca said.
The Ohio State study — funded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society — was described in two papers written by graduate students. Brittney Schirda was the lead author of an article published earlier this month in Rehabilitation Psychology on the primary study of emotional control. Heena Manglani was the lead author on a secondary analysis of the study, which looked at mental speed and working memory that was published last month in Neuropsychology.
Prakash said she hopes to follow up with a larger study.
To learn more about mindfulness and MS, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.