Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program Benefits MS

DENVER — The use of mindfulness-based interventions for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), whether delivered in person or through online video conferencing, resulted in improved cognitive function and reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, according to research presented at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers.

Two studies assessed the effects of two mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs, one primarily in person until the pandemic forced a move to online participation, and the other exclusively online. The in-person course also found, in a subset of the participants, that blood inflammation markers matched the patients’ reported reduction in stress and loneliness.

Putting mindfulness to the test

Previous research has found that life stressors are linked to clinical MS flares, Chris Hemond, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester, told attendees. He also noted previous research exploring possible explanations for how MBSR programs might improve clinical symptoms of MS. One hypothesis involves an effect on the “forebrain limbic areas responsible for the neurobiological stress response.” Part of this study therefore involved looking for possible MRI changes before and after the MBSR program to test this hypothesis.

The study involved 23 patients, all women with relapsing remitting MS with a median age of 45, and 57% of whom were taking B cell–depleting agents. The patients’ average Expanded Disability Status Scale score was 2, and none experienced any new clinical or MRI disease activity during a 12-week observation period.

Patients volunteered to participate in the free 8-week MBSR program. Half attended MBSR classes in person while the other half had to attend virtual classes due to the pandemic. The program involved eight weekly 2.5-hour classes with daily homework assignments. The program, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts, is intended to be “mental training for nonjudgmental awareness of moment-to-moment experience” that aims to “improve accuracy of perception, acceptance of intractable health-related changes, realistic sense of control, and appreciation of available life experiences,” Dr. Hemond said.

Among the 91% of participants who completed the course, 57% underwent both pre- and postcourse structural MRI scans, and 83% completed both the pre- and postcourse questionnaires. A subset of patients (53%) also provided blood samples for analysis of inflammatory gene expression markers.

“The conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA) score was determined using well-established methods from 53 prespecified blood gene expression markers representing a composite of inflammation, interferon response, and immunoglobulin expression,” Dr. Hemond explained.

Participants’ average scores both pre- and post-questionnaires revealed statistically significant improvements in stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, loneliness, well-being, and interoceptive awareness (P < .01 for all).

Although precise values were not provided in the presentation, patients’ scores significantly decreased on the Brief Inventory of Perceived Stress (BIPS) for “lack of control,” “pushed,” and “conflict” (P < .03). Average scores also improved (decreased) on the Modified Fatigue Inventory Scale, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, and all three subscales of the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales assessment (P <.01). Participants’ scores increased on the Mental Health Continuum “hedonic” and “eudaimonic well-being” scales (P < .05).

Improvements on the Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness included self-regulation, attention regulation, “noticing” (P = .02), “not worrying” (P < .01), “emotional awareness” (P < .01), “body listening” (P < .01), and “trusting” (P < .01).

After adjustment for age, race, body mass index, medical therapy and time, the researchers found changes in inflammatory gene expression in the 12 participants who provided blood samples, and these changes correlated inversely with changes in their reported loneliness (P =.002), pain (P <.001), several interoception aspects (P < .01), and stress (P < .0001), particularly regarding feeling a lack of control.

Although no structural MRI changes were observed in the amygdala or prefrontal cortex, the researchers did see a 1% volume increase on the right-side hippocampus. Though the increase was significant (P < .01) and right hippocampal enlargement has been linked with MBSR in past studies, Dr. Hemond acknowledged the study’s small sample size and urged caution in interpreting that finding.

Dr. Hemond also reported that interaction between higher CTRA and the MSBR training attenuated the right hippocampal volume increase that was seen with MBSR, a finding which raises more questions than it answers.

The primary finding, however, was that “mindfulness-based stress reduction was associated with substantial improvement in multiple patient-reported outcomes of the debilitating ‘silent symptoms’ of MS,” Dr. Hemond told attendees. Though the study is limited by its small sample size, observational biases, and missing data, the findings suggest the possibility that MBSR is also associated with structural limbic brain changes, especially in the right hippocampus.

Another tool for managing MS

Ellen Mowry, MD, MCR, a professor of neurology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, who attended the presentation, said she was very enthusiastic about this research.

“People with MS often are seeking ways that they can have self-efficacy and managing the symptoms of their disease, and we know that the disease-modifying therapies make a big difference, but we need additional therapies that can help people feel better and live better with MS,” Dr. Mowry commented.

She also acknowledged the challenges, however, in developing a mindfulness program that is accessible by a broad range of MS patients. This particular program involved several hours of work per day.

“People with MS often are either on the younger side, and they’re working and raising their family and doing all the same stuff that everybody else is doing, or they might be quite disabled and have more fatigue and other things that might make it really challenging to persist through that long of an intervention,” Dr. Mowry said.

The ideal program would be one that’s financially accessible, either through insurance, society more broadly, or another source, and which is logistically feasible for a wide range of patients. Finding a “sweet spot” with a program that doesn’t “require such a lengthy amount of time in order to see a success would be really great,” Dr. Mowry said. “You have to start somewhere, though, and you have to start with a program that’s already been tried and true and work from there.”

An online-only mindfulness program

One possible way to find that sweet spot is through an all-online program that patients access from home, similar to the 8-week MBSR program offered by Concord (N.H.) Hospital featured in the second study. The program was conducted via Zoom during once weekly synchronous meetings throughout 2021 and 2022 for eight cohorts of 5-15 participants each. The time of day the program was offered alternated between evening and daytime courses each quarter and was free for patients because of a hospital grant, according to Nicole Delcourt, BSN, RN, MSCN, of Concord Hospital Neurology, who facilitated patient sign-ups for the program.

Before and after each 8-week course, participants completed the PHQ-9, the PROMIS Cognitive Function, the PROMIS Fatigue–MS, and the Wasson Health Confidence assessments. Among the total 77 participating adults with MS, the completion rate was 81%, with 73% completing the preprogram assessments and 53% completed the postprogram assessments.

The assessments revealed a statistically significant increase in cognitive function and health confidence and decrease in depressive symptoms and fatigue following the program. Participants’ average PROMIS Cognitive Function scores increased from 16.7 before the program to 22.4 after, and their average Wasson Health Confidence score increased from 13.6 to 15.3 (P < .01 for both). Meanwhile, improvement in depressive symptoms was seen in participants’ decrease in Patient Health Questionnaire–9 scores from an average 6.9 to 4.6 (P = .01), and their average PROMIS Fatigue scores fell slightly but significantly from 59.3 to 55.3 (P < .05).

The participants “really felt like they were more in touch with their own feelings and emotions, and it helped them self-regulate,” Ms. Delcourt sad, “so it was really exciting.”

Patients also expressed satisfaction more subjectively in their feedback surveys. “I feel more aware of my body’s reactions to food and movement, and things that make me feel better physically,” one participant said. Another said that the class’s “lasting value … will be to remember my own needs and how to become one with them.” Another participant praised the relevance of the printed and course materials, the speed of feedback on homework, and the quality of the video conference.

Dr. Hemond owns stock in VIVIO health. No other authors of either study reported other disclosures. Dr. Mowry has received grant funding from Biogen and Genentech. Ms. Delcourt had no disclosures. The in-person program study was funded by CMSC. Funding information for the Concord online program was unavailable.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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