The study, titled “Investigating social cognition in epilepsy using a naturalistic task,” was published in the scientific journal Epilepsia.
A prime social cognitive skill is the ability to understand and react to the mental state of others. Other key skills include attachment formation, communication, self-understanding and perception of others. Previous research studies have shown that emotion recognition deficits occur in patients with epilepsy, possibility due to the disruption of a pathway involving frontal, temporal and limbic regions.
Led by Dr. Robert Roth, an associate professor of Psychiatry at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, the research team assessed social cognition in 43 focal epilepsy patients and 22 healthy volunteers. The team used a dynamic video-based instrument called The Awareness of Social Inference Test, developed to accurately model real-world social situations. The researchers asked the participants to watch short videos of social interactions, using the test, and then answer questions about what they thought was happening.
The results showed that epilepsy patients had no difficulty identifying positive emotions, like happiness, but struggled in identifying negative emotions, like fear, disgust, or anger. Sincere feelings were also more easily identified than insincere ones or sarcastic expressions. Awareness of this difficulty is important, as it may help to alert people with epilepsy of being vulnerable in certain social situations.
Researchers also found that the age of epilepsy onset significantly impacted social cognition – strategies used to process, store and apply information about other people and social contexts — with the strongest impact linked to disease onset in childhood or adolescence, a period of significant social development.
These findings suggest that, even though a person’s performance standardized cognitive assessments might indicate good social cognitive skills, those tests might be inadequate to judge a patient’s advanced social cognition. The research team concluded that current generalized measures might not be as useful as previously thought for standard neuropsychological assessment.