Research exploring emotions and MS
The MS Society is funding a project worth £68,722 to investigate how MS influences different aspects of emotional skills.
The PhD project, led by Professor Louise Phillips (pictured) at the University of Aberdeen, will explore how common emotional problems are in MS and whether they impact on quality of life.
The research aims to shed light on effective emotional coping strategies for people with MS.
Research Network member Ashlee Halliday is a social worker. She spoke to Professor Phillips to find out more about the study and why it was important for the MS Society to fund.
What are emotional and social skills?
Emotional skills include the abilities involved in understanding and regulating your own and others’ emotions.
The two key emotional skills we are interested in are emotion understanding, the ability to read other people’s emotions from their voice, actions and facial expressions; and emotion regulation, the ability to understand and control your own feelings. Social skills are involved in interacting with other people.
Why have you developed an interest in researching this subject?
Whenever I met the clinical neuropsychologists working at the hospital, they were frustrated that the psychological aspects of MS were neglected in terms of research evidence, compared to other neurological conditions.
The more we looked into this, the more we realised how under-researched MS was in terms of cognitive, emotional and social functions. I also have friends and colleagues with MS – there can barely be anyone in Scotland who doesn’t have personal involvement with someone diagnosed with MS.
Why do you think MS might cause problems in these areas?
In the last decade there have been huge advances in understanding how the brain is involved in emotional and social functioning. We think that the brain changes that may occur in MS could impact on the many processes involved in emotional skills (such as visual attention and cognitive control).
There must be many causes of emotional problems – such as life history, personality and having to adjust to disability. Will you take all this into account in your study?
Yes, being able to understand and regulate emotions effectively depends on many factors, including cognitive function, coping strategies and life history. In our study we will measure attention and cognitive function, to look at how that might relate to emotional skills.
We will also explore how people are coping with any disabilities that they experience, and the links between coping, disability and emotional function.
Trying to understand the influence of pre-MS history presents a challenge – we will ask people to tell us whether they have experienced any emotional changes since their diagnosis.
Could emotional problems also be due to lack of empathy from others (who don’t understand MS)?
It’s actually quite shocking how little people know about MS and the effects it has on people, despite how common it is.
We haven’t completely decided how to measure social interaction and other people’s reactions are not something that we had intended to measure, but your questions are making me think more about it. It’s something we will definitely consider!
Aren’t emotional problems found in all walks of society?
There are individual differences between people in all of these things, regardless of having MS. We can all think of people we know who are quite empathetic and easy to interact with and those who are less so.
The particular purpose of this project is to try and measure whether there are differences in particular aspects of understanding and regulating emotion between people with MS, on average, and controls (people without MS). Research indicates that the groups differ.
I want to be clear though, that not everyone with MS will experience these problems – MS has such a varied effect.
Read more about what the study will involve and how this type of research could benefit people with MS in Research exploring emotions and MS: part two.