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Open Access Research article

Exploring social cognition in patients with apathy following acquired brain damage

Progress Njomboro1*, Glyn W Humphreys2 and Shoumitro Deb3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa

2 School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK

3 Division of Neurosciences, Imperial College, London, UK

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BMC Neurology 2014, 14:18  doi:10.1186/1471-2377-14-18

Published: 23 January 2014

Abstract

Background

Research on cognition in apathy has largely focused on executive functions. To the best of our knowledge, no studies have investigated the relationship between apathy symptoms and processes involved in social cognition. Apathy symptoms include attenuated emotional behaviour, low social engagement and social withdrawal, all of which may be linked to underlying socio-cognitive deficits.

Methods

We compared patients with brain damage who also had apathy symptoms against similar patients with brain damage but without apathy symptoms. Both patient groups were also compared against normal controls on key socio-cognitive measures involving moral reasoning, social awareness related to making judgements between normative and non-normative behaviour, Theory of Mind processing, and the perception of facial expressions of emotion. We also controlled for the likely effects of executive deficits and depressive symptoms on these comparisons.

Results

Our results indicated that patients with apathy were distinctively impaired in making moral reasoning decisions and in judging the social appropriateness of behaviour. Deficits in Theory of Mind and perception of facial expressions of emotion did not distinguish patients with apathy from those without apathy.

Conclusion

Our findings point to a possible socio-cognitive profile for apathy symptoms and provide initial insights into how socio-cognitive deficits in patients with apathy may affect social functioning.

Keywords:
Apathy; Brain damage; Social cognition; Theory of mind; Emotion perception; Social awareness; Moral reasoning