Functional and structural cerebral changes in key brain regions after a facilitation programme for episodic future thought in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis patients

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Increasingly studied, episodic future thought (EFT) impairment negatively affects patients' daily life. Along these lines, working with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RR-MS) patients, we documented the clinical effectiveness of a mental visual imagery (MVI)-based facilitation programme on EFT impairment related to executive function difficulties. We aimed at improving the characterisation of the cognitive and neural underpinnings of RR-MS patients' EFT amelioration, by exploring the structural and functional brain changes following the MVI programme. Seventeen non-depressed RR-MS patients were recruited and randomly assigned in the (i) experimental group (n = 10), who followed the MVI programme or in the control group (n = 7), who followed a verbal control programme. Using an adapted version of the Autobiographical Interview to assess EFT, after facilitation, significant improvement was observed in the experimental group only. This was accompanied by increased activation in the prefrontal region during the generation of future events and was positively correlated with grey matter volume increase in this same brain area. Increased activations in the parahippocampal and the middle temporal gyri were also observed in the experimental group in post-facilitation. Likewise, functional connectivity changes were observed in the posterior brain regions after facilitation. Only minor cerebral changes were observed in the control group, likely reflecting practice effects. Our study showed that EFT improvement following the MVI programme led to functional and structural changes in brain regions sustaining contextual processing, visual imagery, the integration and maintenance of multimodal information. Taken together, these findings suggest that a cognitive intervention focusing on scene construction can be efficient to alleviate EFT impairment related to executive dysfunction. As such, this study opens the way to the development of tailor-made rehabilitation programmes using the different cognitive mechanisms involved in EFT.

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