Empathy in multiple sclerosis-correlates with cognitive, psychological and occupational functioning

K. van der Hiele*, E. E. A. van Egmond, P. J. Jongen, J. J. L. van der Klink, E. A. C. Beenakker, J. J. J. Eijk, S. T.F.M. Frequin, E. Hoitsma, J. P. Mostert, W. I. M. Verhagen, D. A.M. Van Gorp, H. A.M. Middelkoop, L. H. Visser

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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.
Original languageEnglish
Article number102036
Number of pages8
JournalMultiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders
Volume41
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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