Friday 27 March 2015

Inflammation impairs social cognitive processing

A quote to begin: "acute inflammation can lead to decreases in the ability to accurately and reliably comprehend emotional information from others."

It comes from the article published by Mona Moieni and colleagues [1] who examined a concept familiar to many people with a connection to autism either personally or professionally: Theory of Mind (ToM). Rather interestingly, Moieni et al "examined whether exposure to an experimental inflammatory challenge led to changes in ToM." Inflammatory challenge refers to the artificial induction of a state of inflammation via the use of something called endotoxin, something I've covered under another name previously on this blog (see here).

As part of a larger research project on inflammation-induced depressed mood (see here) researchers set about looking at social cognition under inflammatory-inducing and placebo conditions specifically based on the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes (RME) test". The RME test has quite a firm foundation in autism research [2]. Their results indicated that using the RME test as a sort of measure of ToM "endotoxin (vs. placebo) led to decreases in performance on the RME test from baseline to the peak of inflammatory response, indicating that acute inflammation can lead to decreases in the ability to accurately and reliably comprehend emotional information from others."

With the caveats that (a) this wasn't a study of people with autism (or at least not those diagnosed with autism) and (b) acute inflammation may not be the same as chronic inflammation, these are intriguing results potentially overlaying onto several other research areas. Autism and inflammation is something that I'm quite interested in on this blog as per the idea that physiology and psychology might not be some far apart in certain cases/types of autism (see here). That other somatic manifestations might also be linked to inflammatory processes with autism in mind (see here) is something else to mention.

I hold back from saying that all those with autism who 'fail' ToM tasks are somehow in a state of inflammation given that this is a complicated area (see here). As per my previous ramblings, I'm also not necessarily the greatest fan of the sweeping generalisations made about ToM when it comes to autism (see here). Particularly when one looks at the way that ToM is examined in relation to autism [3] and how ToM issues cross quite a few different labels [4] some of which might overlap with autism (see here).

Still, if there is the remotest possibility that the physiological state of acute inflammation might correlate with issues with mentalising or completing mentalising tasks, I'd be minded to suggest that future work on ToM might be minded to take this into account. Likewise, in all those studies looking at inflammatory processes linked to something like autism, measuring ToM before and after could represent an interesting parameter when looking at potential interventions...

Some music then... The Wedding Present and My Favourite Dress.


[1] Moieni M. et al. Inflammation impairs social cognitive processing: A randomized controlled trial of endotoxin. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 2015. May 10.

[2] Baron-Cohen S. et al. The "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" Test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2001 Feb;42(2):241-51.

[3] Iao LS. & Leekam SR. Nonspecificity and theory of mind: new evidence from a nonverbal false-sign task and children with autism spectrum disorders. J Exp Child Psychol. 2014 Jun;122:1-20.

[4] Chung YS. et al. A meta-analysis of mentalizing impairments in adults with schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder. Schizophr Bull. 2014 May;40(3):602-16.

---------- Moieni M, Irwin MR, Jevtic I, Breen EC, & Eisenberger NI (2015). Inflammation impairs social cognitive processing: a randomized controlled trial of endotoxin. Brain, behavior, and immunity PMID: 25770082

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