Researchers at The Ohio State University found that mindfulness training may help patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) by regulating negative emotions and improving processing speed.

According to the study authors, patients with MS who underwent the 4-week mindfulness training not only showed greater improvement in processing speed and regulating negative emotions than those who did not participate in any training, but they also improved compared with those who tried adaptive cognitive training (ACT).

The study involved 61 people with MS who were placed in 3 different groups: 4-week mindfulness training, 4-week adaptive cognitive training, or a waitlist control group who did not do anything during the study period but received treatment afterward.

According to study author Ruchika Prakash, PhD, mindfulness-based training involves practicing paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental manner. Participants involved in this group learned how to focus on breathing and to do mental “body scans” to experience how their body was feeling.

In the primary analysis of the study, the researchers were interested in finding out whether mindfulness training helped patients with MS deal with a common component of the disease, which involves regulating their emotions, according to an Ohio State University press release.

“Studies suggest that 30% to 50% of MS patients experience some form of psychiatric disorder,” Prakash said in the press release. “Anything we can do to help them cope is important for their quality of life.”

The participants completed a measure of emotional regulation at the beginning and end of the study, which asked how much they agreed with questions such as “When I’m upset, I lose control over my behavior,” and “I experience my emotions as overwhelming and out of control.”

The results showed that those in the mindfulness training group reported being more able to manage their emotions at the end of the study compared with individuals in the other 2 groups. This included the group who received ACT, which has shown promise for patients with MS in other studies, according to the authors of the current study.

The ACT program used computerized games to help patients with MS overcome some of their cognitive issues that make daily functioning more difficult. This may include problems with paying attention, switching focus, and planning and organizing, according to the study authors.

In the secondary analysis of the same study, participants were assessed on their processing speed and working memory, 2 cognitive functions that often decline in patients with MS. In addition, the participants were asked to complete additional measures of cognitive functioning, according to the study authors.

According to Heena Manglani, a doctoral student who led a secondary analysis of the same study, processing speed is the time it takes a person to complete mental tasks and is related to how well they can understand and react to the information they receive.

After 4 weeks of mindfulness training, patients with MS showed significantly improved processing speed based on the tests used in the study, more than the other 2 groups, according to the press release.

“This is an exciting finding because processing speed is a core cognitive domain impacted in multiple sclerosis,” Prakash said in the press release. “We were somewhat surprised that this training intervention that we thought would mostly impact emotion regulation also enhanced processing speed.”

There were no mindfulness-specific changes in other measures of cognitive functioning, and gains in working memory were similar in all 3 groups, according to the study authors.

Prakash stated that one of the reasons that mindfulness training is so promising is because it is an easily accessible treatment for all patients.

“Anyone can use mindfulness—even individuals with limited mobility, who often find other training techniques, like exercise training, to be more challenging,” said Prakash in the press release.

The researchers said that they are developing a replica of the pilot study with a larger sample. 

Grabmeier, Jeff. Mindfulness training shows promise for people with MS. Ohio State University News. Published May 18, 2020. Accessed May 21, 2020.