Empathy in Multiple sclerosis--Correlates With Cognitive, Psychological and Occupational Functioning

Mult Scler Relat Disord. 2020 Jun;41:102036. doi: 10.1016/j.msard.2020.102036. Epub 2020 Mar 2.

Abstract

Background: Recent studies report deficits in social cognition in individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS). Social cognitive skills such as empathy are important for adequate social and occupational functioning. Our objectives are: (1) to examine whether empathy differs between individuals with MS and healthy controls, (2) to examine relations between empathy and cognitive, psychological and occupational functioning.

Methods: 278 individuals with MS (relapsing-remitting subtype) and 128 healthy controls from the MS@Work study participated in this investigation. The participants completed questionnaires about demographics, cognitive, psychological and occupational functioning, and underwent neurological and neuropsychological examinations. Mann-Whitney U-tests were used to examine group differences in empathy. Pearson and Spearman rank correlation analyses were used to examine relations between empathy and the other measures.

Results: Empathy did not differ between individuals with MS and healthy controls. In individuals with MS, higher empathy was correlated with a higher educational level (X2(df) = 13.2(2), p = 0.001), better verbal learning (r = 0.20, p = 0.001), less symptoms of depression (r=-0.21, p = 0.001), higher extraversion (r = 0.25, p ≤ 0.001), agreeableness (r = 0.55, p ≤ 0.001) and conscientiousness (r = 0.27, p ≤ 0.001) and better occupational functioning in terms of work scheduling and output demands (r = 0.23, p = 0.002) and less cognitive/psychological work barriers (r = -0.21, p = 0.001). In healthy controls, higher empathy was correlated with less symptoms of depression (r = -0.34, p ≤ 0.001), less fatigue (r = -0.37, p ≤ 0.001), higher agreeableness (r = 0.59, p ≤ 0.001) and better occupational functioning in terms of work ability as compared to lifetime best (r = 0.28, p = 0.001) and less cognitive/psychological work barriers (r = -0.34, p ≤ 0.001). Empathy did not differ between unemployed and employed individuals with MS or healthy controls.

Conclusion: Empathy did not differ between individuals with MS and healthy controls. Within both investigated groups, higher empathy was weakly to moderately correlated with less symptoms of depression, higher agreeableness and better occupational functioning. We also found unique correlations for empathy within the investigated groups. Longitudinal studies are needed to further examine social cognition in relation to cognitive, psychological and occupational functioning in both individuals with MS and healthy controls. It would be particularly interesting to concurrently examine changes in the brain network involved with social cognition.

Keywords: Empathy; Multiple sclerosis; Neuropsychological functioning; Occupational functioning; Social cognition.