Social cognition: an important but overlooked aspect of cognitive function

Social cognitive deficits have traditionally been linked with autism spectrum conditions. However, a recent paper from Cambridge Cognition suggests that deficits in social cognition are exhibited across a range of neurological, psychiatric and developmental disorders.

Our ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others is an important part of empathising and everyday social interaction. The cognitive processes that drive these abilities are known as social cognition, and include the ability to identify emotions (typically from vocal or facial expressions) as well as infer more complex mental states, known as theory of mind.

Deficits in these processes have traditionally been associated with autism spectrum disorders and have more recently been the focus of a wealth of research in patients with schizophrenia. However, a recent article by the science team at Cambridge Cognition suggests these difficulties may be more common than previously thought.

Investigating social cognition in 30 clinical groups

The paper, ‘Social cognitive dysfunction as a clinical marker: A systematic review of meta-analyses across 30 clinical conditions’, published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, combined data from 31 separate meta-analyses investigating social cognitive performance among patients with a wide range of neurological, psychiatric and developmental disorders.1

They reported that almost all of the clinical groups included in the review performed significantly worse than healthy controls on both facial emotion recognition and theory of mind tasks (Figure 1). Across these patient groups, deficits in social cognitive domains were broadly similar in magnitude to those previously reported for more established aspects of cognition, such as memory and executive function.

Figure 1. Theory of mind effect size estimates and corresponding 95% confidence intervals showed that performance was worse across almost all clinical conditions, compared to healthy controls.

Clinical groups share social cognitive deficits

The authors conclude that social cognitive deficits represent a transdiagnostic issue, potentially serving as a biomarker of neurological abnormality. These results support recent calls for the routine assessment of social cognition in clinical populations,given that these deficits potentially hold both clinical and functional relevance.3,4

The authors point to the need for further research to clarify the real-world impact of these deficits, and to develop effective transdiagnostic interventions for those individuals that are adversely affected.

At Cambridge Cognition we are currently developing a series of computerised social and affective cognition tests suitable for use in clinical studies to further complement our existing Emotion Recognition Task (ERT). This will help to facilitate further research into these complex social processes.

  1. Cotter J, Granger K, Backx R, Hobbs M, Looi CY, Barnett J. Social cognitive dysfunction as a clinical marker: a systematic review of meta-analyses across 30 clinical conditions. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 2017; in press.
  2. Henry JD, von Hippel W, Molenberghs P, Lee T, Sachdev PS. Clinical assessment of social cognitive function in neurological disorders. Nature Reviews Neurology 2016;12(1):28-39.
  3. Couture SM, Penn DL, Roberts DL. The functional significance of social cognition in schizophrenia: a review. Schizophrenia Bulletin 2006;32(1):S44-63.
  4. Penton-Voak I, Munafo M, Looi CY. Biased facial emotion perception in mental health disorders: a possible target for psychological intervention? Current Directions in Psychological Science 2017;26(3):294-301.

ADHD: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; ALS: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; ARMS: At-risk mental state; ASD: Autism spectrum disorder; BD: Bipolar disorder; BPD: Borderline personality disorder; BVFTD: Behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia; FEP: First-episode psychosis; IG: Idiopathic generalised epilepsy; MCI: Mild cognitive impairment; MDD: Major depressive disorder; MS: Multiple sclerosis; OCD: Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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