Being bilingual may protect from cognitive decline in multiple sclerosis

Summary: Bilingual multiple sclerosis patients score better than those who are monolingual in cognitive tests.

Source: University of Reading

Bilingual speakers may benefit from protection against cognitive decline in multiple sclerosis according to a new study.

In the first paper of its kind to test the idea that speaking multiple languages protects against decline in brain function, MS patients who were bilinguals scored better than their single language-speaking peers in cognitive tests.

The new research published in Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism looked at groups of bilingual and monolingual speakers who were being treated for multiple sclerosis. The team found that the bilingual patients scored similarly to healthy participants, while patients who only had fluency in one language performed worse than the monolingual control.

Lead author Dr Fraibet Aveledo, a lecturer in child language development and bilingualism from the University of Reading said:

“This is the first study that we’re aware of that has tested the idea that there is an advantage for bilinguals when it comes to neurodegenerative diseases such as MS.

“While most studies analyse clinical records of patients with dementia, our study has directly compared four groups of people and reveals a significant cognitive boost for MS patients who speak multiple languages compared to their single language peers.”

Monitoring the benefits

The study took matched groups of bilingual and monolingual MS patients from the Gregorio Marañón Hospital in Madrid and matched them to ensure that measures of cognitive decline were similar.

The subsequent tests examined levels of cognitive ‘monitoring’ relating to attention and the evaluation of behaviour, and the team found that bilingual patients and control groups who didn’t have MS scored similarly on the tests, while there was a significant difference between monolingual patients and their control.

This is a chalkboard drawing of a person's head
The team found that the bilingual patients scored similarly to healthy participants, while patients who only had fluency in one language performed worse than the monolingual control. Image is in the public domain.

Dr Christos Pliatsikas, an associate professor in psycholinguistics at the University of Reading said:

“The exciting thing about this study is that it demonstrates for the first time that the benefits of bilingualism including having a preventative effect against cognitive decline in MS.”

“Previous studies have provided some clues as to the potential effect of speaking multiple languages on the brain and its power to protect against disease, including increasing the volume of several brain areas that are usually connected to language learning and processing. Now this new study shows how this idea is taking place in practice.”

Improving quality of life

Dra. Yolanda Higueras, a neuropsychologist in Dra. Marisa Martínez-Ginés´ MS Unit at Gregorio Marañón Hospital, commented that:

“People with MS want to work to improve their daily-basis functioning, and studies like this one offer new information about how to build-up their cognitive reserve from early stages. As researchers this collaborative project with Reading University was an excellent opportunity to think about the role that linguistics plays in managing MS.”

Funding: The study was funded by the University of Reading’s Centre for Language and Multilingualism and supported by the Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria Gregorio Marañón (Health Research Institute Gregorio Marañón (IISGM)) who provided access to patients.

About this cognition research article

University of Reading
Media Contacts:
Fraibet Aveledo – University of Reading
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Multiple sclerosis and bilingualism”. Aveledo, Fraibet, Yolanda Higueras, Theodoros Marinis, Arpita Bose, Christos Pliatsikas, Ariana Meldaña, Maria Luisa Martínez-Guinés, José Manuel García-Domínguez, Alberto Lozano-Ros, Juan Pablo Cuello and Heidee Goicochea-Briceño.
Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism doi:Not Available.


Multiple sclerosis and bilingualism

It has been suggested that bilingualism is beneficial for executive control and could have positive long-term effects by delaying the onset of symptoms of degenerative diseases. This research investigates, for the first time, the impact of bilingualism on executive control (monitoring and inhibitory control) in individuals with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a neurodegenerative disease which commonly causes deficiencies in the cognitive system. Bilingual and monolingual adults, with and without an MS diagnosis, performed a flanker task with two degrees of monitoring demands (high monitoring vs. low monitoring). Results showed that bilingual MS patients had inhibitory control and monitoring abilities that were similar to healthy bilingual controls. In contrast, monolingual MS patients showed similar inhibitory control but significantly worse monitoring abilities compared to monolingual healthy controls. We propose that the similar behaviour between bilingual groups suggests that bilingualism might counteract cognitive deficits related to MS, especially with respect to monitoring. The high monitoring cost observed in monolingual patients seems related to underlying deficits in monitoring and possibly switching, executive control abilities commonly impaired in MS patients from early stages. Our findings provide some preliminary evidence for the cognitive reserve hypothesis in bilingual MS patients.

Feel free to share this Multiple Sclerosis News.
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.