Problems Processing Sensory Information Linked to MS Severity, Difficulties in Daily Life, Study Finds

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by Ana Pena PhD |

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People with multiple sclerosis (MS) — both with and without cognitive impairments — have trouble processing sensory information, which is linked to greater disease severity and difficulties in daily life, a study reveals.

The study is one of the first to look at the consequences of sensory processing deficits in people with MS. Titled “Sensory Processing Difficulties Adversely Affect Functional Behavior in Multiple Sclerosis,” it was published in the journal Disability and Rehabilitation.

Little is known about how well the nervous systems of MS patients work in receiving messages from the senses and turning them into responses — a process called sensory processing. More than that, there is little data on the impact of potential sensory processing difficulties on the daily activities of people with MS.

To bridge this gap, a team of researchers from the University of Haifa, in Israel, and the Kessler Foundation, in the U.S., compared sensory processing deficits between individuals with MS and healthy people (controls), as well as the effects of such difficulties on functional behavior and disease severity. The team assessed MS patients both with and without cognitive impairments to study the potential impact of such deficits.

The study enrolled 61 people with MS, ages 23 to 63, and 36 healthy controls. Among the participants with MS, 43 had cognitive impairments, and 18 did not. Such impairments were assessed by tests of mental processing speed and memory, termed BICAMS.

All participants were asked to complete questionnaires — the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile — measuring their abilities to process information learned through the senses. They also were assessed for behavior difficulties in performing tasks, social interactions, and problem-solving, using the Functional Behavior Profile. Disease severity was evaluated using the MS Functional Composite.

The analysis revealed that both MS groups had trouble with sensory processing, regardless of the presence of cognitive impairments.

Compared with healthy controls, people with MS had a worse capacity to register and modulate sensory input from the environment. The MS patients were more likely to be oversensitive and experience sensory avoidance — when people overreact to input from their senses, and thus avoid it because it is overwhelming to them.

Importantly, sensory processing difficulties were associated with greater disease severity, and poor functional behavior in everyday activities.

The results indicated that disease severity and sensory processing deficits affected functional performance in daily life, contrary to the individual’s cognitive status, which seemed to have no impact on functional behavior.

“This study underscores the influence of sensory processing in MS, and the importance of screening patients for these disorders,” Yael Goverover, PhD, the study’s senior author, said in a foundation press release.

“Further research is needed to explore whether sensory processing difficulties could be of predictive value for disease severity and cognitive decline,” added Goverover, an occupational therapist and researcher at New York University and the Kessler Foundation.

One future task is to measure sensory processing using objective measures, such as electrophysiology tools that measure the electrical activity of nerve cells. Investigators also should compile patient reports that reflect the difficulties in real life faced by people with MS.

“This approach may lead to interventions that improve function and support the full participation of people with MS in everyday life,” Goverover said.

The team called for MS intervention programs to include measures that target sensory processing difficulties, and their correlation with disease severity and impact on people’s daily function.

“Research and practice should further explore the role of sensory processing as expressed in daily scenarios for persons with MS and consider the functional impacts of this study in order to optimize daily life experiences for patients,” the researchers said.

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