Nearly 2.3 million people suffer from multiple sclerosis world-wide, and even though that seems like a huge number, there still isn’t a lot of clarity about what causes the condition or how to treat it. Multiple sclerosis affects the central nervous system along the brain and spine and can therefore present in a whole host of different symptoms, which is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to fully understand. Although the symptoms of multiple sclerosis can be far reaching, recent research into the relationship between the disease and cognitive functions is shedding more light on how the brain is specifically affected.
Spotting altered brain function
Overtime, the disease eats away at the protective covering of nerves in certain parts of the brain and along the spinal cord. If a patient has already been diagnosed with MS, then it may be easier to connect symptoms with the condition, but if a patient is undiagnosed, then the presentation of these symptoms may seem confusing. This is especially true when it comes to the effects of multiple sclerosis on the brain. MS may cause forgetfulness and trouble with memory, depression-like symptoms, and even affect a patient’s social functioning abilities. At the early stages, these symptoms may not be severe and that can make them difficult to spot. But over time, especially depending on the nature of the individual’s condition, the effect of MS on the brain can become debilitating.
Progressive vs. relapsing
Patients suffering from multiple sclerosis are typically grouped into one of two types: relapsing or progressive. With a relapsing condition, patients tend to experience flare-ups of the condition. In these cases, medical professionals attempt to treat the disease by alleviating symptoms during a flare-up and taking steps to prevent future episodes. Once a patient moves from flare-ups to more constant state of symptoms then the disease is categorized as progressive. In these cases, the symptoms patients experience will get continually worse. When it comes to brain functioning, progressive MS can be particularly scary; what was once occasional absent-mindedness now becomes an inability to remember important information. The effects of multiple sclerosis on both cognitive and social functioning can ultimately become debilitating, especially in progressive cases.
When it comes to the brain MS can have a big impact on an individual’s cognitive abilities. Some areas typically affected include memory, attention span, the ability to process information quickly, and abstract thinking. Over time the disease can also inhibit a patient’s ability to speak and other executive functions. The impairment of these cognitive functions is connected to the amount of white matter in the brain that is altered by the disease. As the disease progresses and the nerves are further impacted, these impairments will typically worsen.
While social functioning is very similar and closely related to cognitive functioning, it is slightly different. Rather than describing how an individual is able to receive and communicate information, social functioning is more about how an individual is able to relate to other people. Research has found that in addition to altering white matter in the brain, MS also alters the level of gray matter. This affects a person’s ability to both understand others’ social and emotional cues and then the ability to interact based on these cues. While social functioning may seem secondary to cognitive functioning, it has a huge impact on an individual’s community and support system and can be a big factor in quality of life.
While treatments for multiple sclerosis can be far reaching and have an impact on a variety of different symptoms, there have been some recent advances in treatment options specifically targeting the brain. A study conducted by a team from the University College of London indicates that a high dose of simvastatin on a daily basis can slow down the degradation of the brain in patients with progressive MS. The study was fairly straightforward, out of a 133-person sample half were given a placebo and half were given a high dose of simvastatin. At both the 12 month and 24 month mark the frontal lobe of the group given the drug was at a higher functioning level than the placebo group. The study will continue monitoring the group for a third year, but even the current results indicate that the drug could have a positive effect on slowing cognitive impairment.
In addition to the success of recent drug treatments like simvastatin, some researchers and medical professionals have also been documenting success with various therapeutic treatments. These treatments typically involve the use of machines that stimulate the electrons in the brain. Two treatment methods currently being explored with some success are called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS and Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation or tDCS. TMS is thought to be the more effective of the two because it has the ability to actually make electrons fire while tDCS can only stimulate them. Both treatment methods have been found to fatigue, mood and attention problems, and the ability to access information in the brain. Additionally, the treatments may have some positive affects as well with the treatment of physical symptoms.
Importance of brain treatments
When it comes to treating the symptoms of MS, the affect the disease has on the brain can often take a back seat to some of the more physical symptoms. When you consider that a patient may be dealing with excruciating muscular-skeletal pain or migraines, then memory loss, especially if it’s mild, may seem like a secondary issue. But the effects of MS on the brain should not be ignored, especially in patients who have been categorized as progressive. Although many of the cognitive and social impairments associated with multiple sclerosis may not have a huge impact on a patient’s daily life at the beginning, they can prove to be the most debilitating in the long run. Researchers have noted that whether or not a patient will become disabled and unemployed due to MS is most strongly related to his or her cognitive and social functioning. If a patient’s cognitive functions become increasingly impaired, then he or she will eventually be unable to perform many of the daily tasks needed to live. If a patient’s social functions degrade, then he or she is more likely to alienate friends and loved ones which in turn dissolves the support structure that exists. A person’s relational support structure is one of the biggest indicators of quality of life and the loss of a support structure can have damaging effects long-term health
Treatment for multiple sclerosis can be extremely difficult, especially because symptoms may present in a wide host of ways. Researchers are continuing to search for more information about MS in attempts to better understand the disease. While information about what causes the disease and methods for preventing it will certainly be valuable, new treatment methods for patients already experiencing the condition will also go a long way in relieving symptoms. Studies examining the impact of the disease on the brain with regard to both cognitive and social functioning have revealed that it can cause severe long-term problems. By better understanding how these symptoms present, individuals and medical professionals may be able to spot them earlier on. With earlier and more accurate diagnoses, combined with recent advancements in the use of medications and different therapies for overall brain function, the treatment options for MS patients are increasingly promising.