Do you suffer from alexithymia?

What has alexithymia got to do with having MS?

In fact quite a lot; it is something pwMS should take note of. 

Alexithymia. : inability to identify and express or describe one’s feelings. Note: People with alexithymia typically display a lack of imaginative thought, have difficulty distinguishing between emotions and bodily sensations, and engage in logical externally oriented thought.

Don’t worry if you had never heard of alexithymia before; nor had I until reading and reviewing the article below. MS causes alexithymia, which is not surprising, The ability to identify and express one’s feelings is a cognitive task and as MS causes cognitive impairment it must impair this function in a subset of pwMS. 

Alexithymia is a personality trait that can be found in more than half of pwMS. The study below and other data show that alexithymia is associated with MS-related fatigue. Alexithymia can be assessed using a questionnaire. You can complete an alexithymia screening tool online. You can also assess your levels of MS-related fatigue using the online Modified Fatigue Impact Scale (MFIS) calculator. I would be interested to see if we can confirm these results. 

The questions that need to be asked is alexithymia irreversible; or is it potentially reversible as has been shown with other cognitive impairments in MS? Is there a specific part of the brain where a single lesion can cause alexithymia; in other words can a single MS lesion in a strategic area cause alexithymia as part of a relapse? 

Alexithymia is associated with damage to the limbic system and cortical areas of the left hemisphere including the anterior cingulate, inferior, middle, and superior frontal regions, insula, and supplementary motor areas. It appears that alexithymia is another cognitive symptom that is associated with MS-related damage. Therefore, to prevent developing alexithymia we need to treat MS early and effectively; i.e. to turn off the shredder before it causes irreversible damage. 

Chalah et al. Neurophysiological, radiological and neuropsychological evaluation of fatigue in multiple sclerosis. Mult Scler Relat Disord. 2018 Dec 21;28:145-152.

BACKGROUND: Fatigue is a multifactorial symptom frequently reported by multiple sclerosis (MS) patients. To date, the pathophysiology of MS fatigue remains poorly understood and little is known about the relationship between this symptom and various clinical, neuropsychological, neurophysiological and radiological data. The aim of this work is to understand the underlying mechanisms of MS fatigue by means of a multidimensional evaluation.

METHODS: Fatigued (n = 21) and non-fatigued (n = 17) MS patients were enrolled based on the Modified Fatigue Impact Scale. They underwent clinical (disability score and disease duration), neuropsychological (scales of depression, anxiety, alexithymia, sleep, and Symbol Digit Modalities Test), neurophysiological (corticospinal excitability measures using transcranial magnetic stimulation), and radiological (volume-based morphometric magnetic resonance imaging) evaluations. The normality of data distribution was studied by the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. Group comparison was performed using the Mann-Whitney or Student t test (quantitative data) and the exact Fisher’s test (qualitative data). Correlation analysis was done using Pearson and Spearman tests.

RESULTS: Fatigued patients had higher depression (p = 0.02), anxiety (p = 0.02) and alexithymia (p = 0.04) scores compared to non-fatigued patients. On the neurophysiological and radiological evaluations, they also had higher short-interval intracortical inhibition (p = 0.04), larger caudate nuclei (p ≤ 0.01) and smaller left parietal cortex (p = 0.01). These findings were in line with the correlation analyses results.

CONCLUSION: The neuropsychological findings suggest common underlying mechanisms as well as bi-directional relationships between fatigue and each of anxiety, depression, and alexithymia. The neurophysiological findings may reflect maladaptive neuroplasticity processes and an aberrant GABAergic transmission in the generation of fatigue. The radiological findings could be interpreted in the light of the ‘dysfunctional hypertrophy’ or ‘compensatory hypertrophy’ hypotheses.

3 thoughts on “Do you suffer from alexithymia?”

  1. Very interesting. My partner who has MS almost certainly has alexithymia. I didn't know about this problem until reading this. Is there anything that can be done about it?

    1. Typically counselling and CBT. Some psychiatrists use psychodynamic psychotherapy. It is important to manage the comorbid anxiety and depression as well.

  2. Thanks Prof G for this post, very interesting. My wife describes me as increasingly cold and unemotional so I suspect being a pwMS has something to do with this.

    Just tried the test online on the website and scored 131 that equates to “High Alexithyma Traits”. Well, there you go, another condition to add to my growing list of quirks. Probably something else to discuss with my consultant at our next meeting – especially if I’m asked how I feel…. Generally, I don’t seems like an apt reply. Watch out – it may be you I’m havign the conversation with, unless I’m too fatigued to remember.

    This brings me back to my normal mantra – focus on what you can change and don’t worry about what you can’t. I now know that emotions probably fall into the latter category so best just to get on with things and gloss this over.

    Thanks again

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