Experimental studies show that inflammation impairs the ability to interpret the mental state of another person, denoted theory of mind (ToM). The current study attempted a conceptual replication in states associated with elevated low-grade inflammation, i.e., high body weight and advanced age.
Ninety young (M = 26.3 years, SD = 4.1) or older (M = 70.7 years, SD = 4.0) participants with either a normal body mass index (BMI) (M = 22.4, SD = 2.2) or high BMI (M = 33.1, SD = 3.8) completed the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) to assess emotion recognition. Plasma interleukin-6 (IL-6) level was measured to index low-grade inflammation.
As anticipated, elevated IL-6 levels were found with higher BMI, although not with increased age. IL-6 was associated with poorer task performance, independent of potential demographic and health confounders (e.g., sex, education, smoking status, alcohol intake, presence of medical conditions, and medication intake). Analyses also revealed an interaction whereby young individuals with a high BMI showed worse RMET performance compared to their normal BMI counterparts, whereas the opposite pattern was found in older individuals.
The present observational study replicated experimental results showing that elevated low-grade inflammation is correlated with a lower ability to infer the mental states of others. These findings suggest that also naturalistic conditions of (protracted) low-grade inflammation may alter emotion recognition.