Measuring Cognitive Function with MMSE

Measuring Cognitive Function with MMSE

I have two cats. They seem pretty smart, there’s definitely something going on in their minds. Unfortunately, I can’t see inside their thoughts, so it is hard for me to know just how capable they really are. Weirdly, this isn’t just a problem with cats, but people too. Many of us have the ability to talk, type, sign, or draw, but even with our most precise communication methods, it is impossible to find out what’s actually going on up there. The modern form of this problem was clearly explained in the 1960’s by the founders of cognitive psychology, the study of how people think.

Cognition is a challenging field to study because even with imaging technologies that can look inside the brain, like MRIs and CAT scans, we can’t ever really know how a person is thinking. We can study the inputs and outputs, we can study how neurons fire, and we can look at the overall state of the brain, but the individual subjective experience escapes us. An example of subjective experience is color. Our experiences of color can be altered by external factors like tinted sunglasses, cataracts, and eye deformities, but we can also change it just by staring at a bright color for a long time, being out in the sun and coming inside, or even through the language we use to describe colors! Cognition is an interesting area of study but has real-world consequences.

One of the challenges with the complexity of cognition and our subjective experience is gauging the presence and severity of mental decline. Unlike diabetes, where we can measure the amount of glucose in the blood, with mental decline and dementia, we have to rely on tests of cognition to measure how well or poorly someone performs cognitive tasks. The benchmark Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE) is the most widely used tool. MMSE is a relatively short (5-15 minute), untimed set of 20 questions that measure 11 domains of cognition:

  • Orientation to time/place
  • Word retention
  • Attention/calculation
  • Word recall
  • Naming
  • Repetition
  • Comprehension
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Drawing

The MMSE can be repeated to track changes over time. The test alone is not a diagnostic tool; a low score does not confirm mental decline and further testing would be needed. Further, age and education level can also lead to lower scores. A high score, however, is unlikely in patients with dementia. This makes the MMSE a great tool for screening patients and quickly assessing patients who fear they may be slipping cognitively.

Now, they need to make one for cats based on meows and mice.


Staff Writer / Editor Benton Lowey-Ball, BS, BFA


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