Can theory of mind deficits be measured reliably in people with mild and moderate Alzheimer’s dementia?

  • Choong C
  • Doody G
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Abstract

BACKGROUND Patients suffering from Alzheimer's dementia develop difficulties in social functioning. This has led to an interest in the study of "theory of mind" in this population. However, difficulty has arisen because the associated cognitive demands of traditional short story theory of mind assessments result in failure per se in this population, making it challenging to test pure theory of mind ability. METHODS Simplified, traditional 1st and 2nd order theory of mind short story tasks and a battery of alternative theory of mind cartoon jokes and control slapstick cartoon jokes, without memory components, were administered to 16 participants with mild-moderate Alzheimer's dementia, and 11 age-matched healthy controls. RESULTS No significant differences were detected between participants with Alzheimer's dementia and controls on the 1st or 2nd order traditional short story theory of mind tasks (p = 0.155 and p = 0.154 respectively). However, in the cartoon joke tasks there were significant differences in performance between the Alzheimer participants and the control group, this was evident for both theory of mind cartoons and the control 'slapstick' jokes. CONCLUSION It remains very difficult to assess theory of mind as an isolated phenomenon in populations with global cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer's dementia, as the tasks used to assess this cognition invariably depend on other cognitive functions. Although a limitation of this study is the small sample size, the results suggest that there is no measurable specific theory of mind deficit in people with Alzheimer's dementia, and that the use of theory of mind representational models to measure social cognitive ability may not be appropriate in this population.

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Choong, C. S., & Doody, G. A. (2013). Can theory of mind deficits be measured reliably in people with mild and moderate Alzheimer’s dementia? BMC Psychology, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/2050-7283-1-28

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