Learning a second language can bolster the health-related quality of life and mental well-being of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) by working to expand areas of the brain involved in language and damaged by MS, especially in early disease stages, a study suggests.
These findings were reported in the study, “Second language learning induces grey matter volume increase in people with multiple sclerosis,” published in the journal PLOS One.
MS is an autoimmune disease characterized by the progressive loss of gray matter volume in different brain regions, starting early in the disease’s course. Its loss is associated with cognitive difficulties and a poorer health-related quality of life (HRQoL). (Gray matter denotes areas of the central nervous system — consisting of the brain and spinal cord — made up of neuron cell bodies.)
Some studies in healthy adults have found that short-term language learning courses led to an increase in gray matter volume in certain brain regions, including areas involved in language and cognitive processing.
Researchers at Medical University of Innsbruck, in Austria, set out to investigate if an eight-week English language training program could lead to changes in gray matter volume in people with MS similar to those reported in healthy individuals.
Their prospective study enrolled 11 people with relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), and 12 healthy age- and gender-matched people serving as controls. Patients’ median age was 37.1 and disease duration 3.3 years, with a median 1.5 level of disability on the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS).
During the eight-week English language training program, participants attended classes (three hours each week) while completing extra activities outside the classroom. English was a second language for all participants.
“Despite significant GMV [gray matter volume] reduction at baseline [study start], pwMS [people with MS] were as successful in learning an L2 [a second language] in terms of listening comprehension, speaking fluency and vocabulary scores as their healthy counterparts,” the study noted.
To analyze possible brain alterations brought by the language training program, investigators took magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of participants before and after the training period.
MS patients were also asked to complete the 36-Item Short Form Health Survey (SF-36) to assess changes in their HRQoL before and after participating in the program.
Initial MRI scans, those taken before the language program, showed a significant loss of gray matter volume in several regions of patients’ brains compared to those of healthy individuals. However, after completing the program, these scans revealed an increase in gray matter volume in areas responsible for short-term memory (hippocampus), learning (putamen), and environment recognition (parahippocampus).
Analyses also associated increases in gray matter volume in the right hippocampus and parahippocampus of MS patients with a gain of vocabulary knowledge.
Importantly, the training program seemed to lead to significant improvements in reported HRQoL.
Increases in gray matter volume were also seen in the insula — a brain region responsible for cognitive functioning, self-awareness, motor and emotion control — of healthy individuals.
Moreover, investigators found the language training program led to significant improvements in listening comprehension, speaking fluency and vocabulary knowledge in all study participants.
“In conclusion, the present study provides evidence for significant GMV increases in MS [patients] and age- and sex-matched HCs [healthy controls] following a short L2 training in different language-related brain regions,” the investigators wrote.
These findings also indicate the presence of neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to adapt or rewire following damage to preserve function — in the brains of those with MS, they said.
“At an early stage of the disease, L2 learning is feasible and accompanied by an improvement in the mental health status of [MS patients]. These encouraging results prompt further investigation of the effectiveness of L2 learning on the improvement of distinct cognitive impairments” in MS patients, the team concluded.