The cognitive profile of ALS: a systematic review and meta-analysis update

J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2016 Jun;87(6):611-9. doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2015-310734. Epub 2015 Aug 17.


Cognitive impairment is present in approximately 30% of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and, especially when severe, has a negative impact on survival and caregiver burden. Our 2010 meta-analysis of the cognitive profile of ALS showed impairment of fluency, executive function, language and memory. However, the limited number of studies resulted in large confidence intervals. To obtain a more valid assessment, we updated the meta-analysis and included methodological improvements (controlled data extraction, risk of bias analysis and effect size calculation of individual neuropsychological tests). Embase, Medline and PsycInfo were searched for neuropsychological studies of non-demented patients with ALS and age-matched and education-matched healthy controls. Neuropsychological tests were categorised in 13 cognitive domains and effect sizes (Hedges' g) were calculated for each domain and for individual tests administered in ≥5 studies. Subgroup analyses were performed to assess the influence of clinical and demographic variables. Forty-four studies were included comprising 1287 patients and 1130 healthy controls. All cognitive domains, except visuoperceptive functions, showed significant effect sizes compared to controls. Cognitive domains without bias due to motor impairment showed medium effect sizes (95% CI): fluency (0.56 (0.43 to 0.70)), language (0.56 (0.40 to 0.72)), social cognition (0.55 (0.34 to 0.76)), or small effect sizes: delayed verbal memory 0.47 (0.27 to 0.68)) and executive functions (0.41 (0.27 to 0.55)). Individual neuropsychological tests showed diverging effect sizes, which could be explained by bias due to motor impairment. Subgroup analyses showed no influence of bulbar disease onset and depression and anxiety on the cognitive outcomes. The cognitive profile of ALS consists of deficits in fluency, language, social cognition, executive functions and verbal memory. Social cognition is a new cognitive domain with a relatively large effect size, highlighting the overlap between ALS and frontotemporal dementia. The diverging effect sizes for individual neuropsychological tests show the importance of correction for motor impairment in patients with ALS. These findings have implications for bedside testing, the design of cognitive screening measures and full neuropsychological examinations.


Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / diagnosis*
  • Cognition Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Disability Evaluation
  • Female
  • Frontotemporal Dementia / diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Language Disorders / diagnosis
  • Male
  • Mental Status Schedule / statistics & numerical data
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests / statistics & numerical data
  • Point-of-Care Testing
  • Psychometrics
  • Reference Values