In very simple terms, cognition is the process of certain mental functions. These functions include identifying knowledge, processing and understanding, learning and planning, problem-solving, concentration, and memory.
In MS this process can become difficult. This is known as cognitive dysfunction, or cognitive challenges and often referred to as ‘cog-fog’. Around 50 per cent of people diagnosed with MS will experience cognitive dysfunction to some degree.
We asked the MS community to describe how cognition affects them, they said…
Signs can initially be so subtle that they are not even really noticeable. They are easily attributable to feeling tired, or perhaps getting older. It can also have much more impact as the condition progresses and can interfere with work, personal life, how a person feels about themselves, or other situations that require more complex thinking. Social situations can become difficult which can cause an increase in anxiety as a result.
Jeffrey Gingold, author of ‘Facing the cognitive challenges of multiple sclerosis’ states in his book how in some cases, cognitive issues have the potential to be just as disabling as the physical difficulties of MS (Facing the Cognitive Challenges of Multiple Sclerosis. Jeffrey Gingold. Published 2011. Accessed October 2019.).
As cognitive dysfunction is an invisible symptom it can often be overlooked, hard to recognise and understand by family, friends, co-workers and even health professionals. The difficulties people can face can be misunderstood. Equally, cognitive dysfunction can be a difficult symptom to talk about and it can be hard to admit you are having problems.
Healthcare professionals need to have a flexible approach and be creative when providing new information to a person with MS-related cognitive difficulties. It is important for anyone, whether they are a health professional or a personal assistant working directly with people with MS, to understand the cognitive challenges that many people face.
MS is an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system attacks its own nerve cells. This means that it can affect any part of the brain therefore any cognitive function can be affected. Along with lesions, MS can cause brain atrophy (loss of brain cells) and shrinkage in certain areas.
In MS, the protective coating that surrounds the brain and spinal cord cells – myelin – becomes damaged, causing messages to not be transmitted through the nerves effectively.
The parts of the brain that control cognitive ability can be exposed and that’s when problems can start to appear.
People with lesions in the cerebrum and the cerebellum parts of the brain will more often have problems with cognitive function compared to those who have lesions in the cerebellum, brain stem and spinal cord (3).
The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain, contributing to nearly 80 per cent of the total weight of the brain. The cerebellum makes up the remaining part.
Symptoms can vary from person to person and the level can fluctuate greatly. Symptoms can come and go and be dependent on other factors such as heat intolerance, fatigue, infections, emotional stress, relapses and medication. Whereas for others, cognitive difficulties can be very persistent and debilitating.
A number of these symptoms are not just specific to MS. They can be caused by other conditions such as depression and anxiety. Even some medications can interfere with cognition. Therefore, it can be difficult to assess and diagnose that cognitive issues are definitely MS related.
When cognitive issues are undiagnosed and unrecognised it can be an emotional and distressing experience. It can also have an impact on relationships and employment, and a person can lose their sense of self and feel vulnerable. In some cases a person may compare their cognitive issues to that of a form of dementia, although the use of this term in MS isn’t necessarily supported in a health care setting.
It is important to talk through these thoughts and fears with a health professional, counsellor, MS-UK Helpline or a friend. It may be that coping strategies can be created together and in turn, this will help reduce further stresses and anxiety.
There is no one test that can diagnose cognitive dysfunction, or even necessarily confirm it. However, there is ongoing research into finding better tools to acknowledge and assess the symptom and therefore allowing for better management.
The NICE guidelines state that cognition should be discussed fully by MS clinic staff and referrals should be considered to both an occupational therapist (OT) and a neuropsychologist to fully assess and manage the symptom.
A full assessment is required to determine the level of cognitive problems that a person is experiencing. However, there are tools that other health professionals (such as MS nurses) can use too, as access to neuropsychology in some areas can be quite limited.
An assessment will likely include a number of different tasks that will test your ability to remember, concentrate and do things that would ordinarily be easy.
The assessment will take into consideration whether a person is having a relapse, may be experiencing depression or high levels of stress, as all will have an impact on cognitive ability.
After the assessment the health professional and patient will work together to set individual goals and find ways in which to make improvements where needed. This might include things like creating new strategies and techniques, referring on for cognitive rehabilitation, counselling, finding alternative approaches to perform tasks, and so on.
There are various ways in which a person can manage their cognitive difficulties but sometimes guidance is needed by a professional.
Unfortunately, there are no prescribable drugs that can help with MS-related cognition although some disease-modifying therapies (DMT) have shown some improvements in clinical trials. However, a DMT wouldn’t be prescribed solely for cognition, they all have eligibility criteria that need to be met.
GPs or MS nurses can refer you to a neuropsychologist but if there isn’t one in your area then an occupational therapist (OT) can help too. An OT can work with a person to help design some strategies to help manage specific issues.
An OT may suggest certain pieces of equipment and aids or even some apps to use on your mobile phone or tablet.
Cognitive rehabilitation therapy can be offered by an OT or psychologist either individually or in a group setting. This type of therapy works by learning new cognitive strategies aimed at compensating for cognitive problems. It can have a positive impact on memory and problem solving and also help to improve attention and a person’s mood (8).
MBCT is mindfulness training combined with elements of cognitive behavioural therapy. Studies have shown that mindfulness-based interventions can have a positive effect on cognitive function. More studies are required to evidence this further (8).
Professor Dawn Langdon, neuropsychologist, says there are a number of things people with MS can do to help protect their cognition. Positive lifestyle choices, some of which may be hard to action but are important to consider include
Other factors that may or may not be available to you are to take disease-modifying medication and to also be prescribed optimum treatment for all other diseases, especially cardiovascular and diabetes.
Professor Langdon also says that regular challenging mental activities can help to maintain clear and fast thinking.
Moderate and severe depression can have a significant impact on cognitive function and is a symptom experienced by up to 50 per cent of people diagnosed with MS. Depression can slow down a person’s thinking. The decline of cognitive function is interlinked with both depression and fatigue. Depression can increase fatigue, which can lead to cognitive decline. Fatigue is associated with increasing levels of depression, which can also lead to a decline in cognition. Each symptom impacts negatively on the others.
It is important that depression is recognised and treated to prevent any potential impact on a person’s cognitive ability. Accessing counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, and taking anti-depressant medication can all help. Speaking to a GP and/or MS nurse about any low mood can open up the conversation in finding the best form of treatment. Treating just one of those symptoms has a significant improvement on the others.
A 2016 study looking at brain training versus ordinary computer games showed that both improved overall cognitive function. Training consisted of one hour a day, five days a week for 12 weeks. The brain training group used a cognitive remediation training program where patients were instructed to play a series of games and tasks, compared to a placebo program of ordinary computer games. The brain training group showed nearly three times the improvement than the computer games group. Both groups were able to take part from their own homes rather than attend a clinic, which was beneficial to all.
Cognitive remediation therapy is a form of rehabilitation offering exercises that aim to improve attention, memory, language and/or executive functions. It can also teach specific strategies to help find the best ways of working with cognitive impairments.
StayingSmart is a website designed by the MS Trust for people affected by MS who want to know more about how MS can affect thinking. The main aims of the resource is to support learning about cognition in MS, to help build confidence in managing cognition and to encourage the sharing of knowledge about, and experiences of cognition.
It looks at everyday problems and provides guides, videos and tips and tricks, full of a variety of ways to manage cognition. They also include videos from people sharing their own personal experiences.
StayingSmart has some useful suggestions when dealing with memory issues, they include
There are other daily reminders that can really improve quality of life and are simple to implement. These include
In Jeffrey Gingold’s book ‘Facing the Cognitive Challenges of Multiple Sclerosis’ he talks about tips for living (Facing the Cognitive Challenges of Multiple Sclerosis. Jeffrey Gingold. Published 2011. Accessed October 2019.).
These are all important points to remember to begin to take control and manage your own cognitive function. Keeping your brain active with hobbies you enjoy such as reading, crafts, painting to name a few can really help to keep your brain healthy. Crosswords and jigsaw puzzles are a great tool to exercise your brain. It is important that these activities stretch your mind somewhat though. Reading is great, talking about the subject with others is better, writing about it is best.
According to MS Brain Health, it is important to stop smoking when affected by cognitive issues. Cigarette smoking in people with MS is associated with decreased brain volume as well as higher relapse rates, increased disability progression, more cognitive problems and reduced survival compared with not smoking (New Pathways. Issue 117, Sep/Oct 2019, page 19. What can you do about cog fog? Published October 2019, accessed December 2019).
In a recent study presented at ECTRIMS 2019, it was found that smokers have reduced Processing Speed Test (PST) scores (which are used to assess cognitive functioning), compared to non-smokers. They also have more brain atrophy. The study looked at ex-smokers as well as current smokers. It was found that ex-smokers had significantly greater brain atrophy than those who had never smoked. This was an effect that was much greater in current smokers.
The doctor behind the study said how important it is for clinicians to discuss smoking management at every appointment and provide patients with the data to encourage them to stop smoking to reduce the risks and the negative impact on disease progression.
If cognitive issues are becoming a problem in terms of managing your finances there are a few things you can do to help plan for the future.
Third Party Access is when a trusted person is given access to your accounts to help you sort out your day-to-day banking. They can make sure your bills are paid on time by arranging direct debits for example; access to mobile or online banking can be helpful so you can go through it together.
Another option would be for a standing order to be set up where a fixed amount is paid regularly to your third party so they can withdraw money and pay bills for you whilst keeping a record of what they spend on your behalf.
Third Party Access can be set up at your bank and can be cancelled at any time.
In some cases where cognitive issues have a significant impact on quality of life and can be a very disabling symptom, things can become more difficult. Life can become confusing, overwhelming and very isolating. In this instance, it may be a good idea to have a LPA.
A LPA is a legal document that allows you to appoint one or more people, (or ‘attorneys’) to have the authority to help you make decisions or to make decisions on your behalf. The person/people appointed do not have to have any legal experience. They can be a family member, friend or people you trust who will always consider your preferences and to help you make your own decisions as much as you can. They should always make decisions in your best interests.
If there are high levels of cognitive issues meaning you cannot make your own decisions easily, you may be seen to ‘lack mental capacity’. Health professionals and social workers would be able to assess whether or not an individual lacks mental capacity. Therefore an LPA will be important in having control over what happens to you and your future.
There are two types of LPA:
You can choose to just have one LPA, or both. You can arrange LPAs via a solicitor or for people living in England, Wales and Scotland the forms are available online from the Office of Public Guardian. For people living in Northern Ireland you can contact the Office for Care and Protection.
Forms can be completed online and there is a fee to register each LPA made. Reductions and exemptions are available to those in receipt of certain benefits.
To read more, please visit the gov.uk website.
For more information on Third Party Access and LPAs please visit the following webpage from Citizens Advice.