Kelly: Why does MS give us brain fog?
Professor Sabina Brennan, Research psychologist: Okay, well MS is a disease of the nervous system in which the myelin sheath of neurons is damaged, and this damage impairs our ability to send signals in the affected areas. Now, our cognitive processes depend on that ability to send signals to different parts of the brain and then the loss of myelin can result in impairment or in slowing of some cognitive functions. The domains that are most likely to be affected are learning, memory, planning, processing speed and word finding. And so while about 50% of people with MS are likely to experience some cognitive symptoms, it’s usually only one or two of the domains that I just mentioned that are affected. Severe decline of general cognitive function in MS is really quite rare.
The cognitive deficits are associated with high cerebral lesion load and in secondary progressive MS. Now, one thing that it’s really, really important to note is that other factors, such as fatigue, tiredness, emotional changes, drugs, relapse, physical restrictions and lifestyle changes, that they can all temporarily impair our cognitive functioning. Alcohol and marijuana can also affect the central nervous system and they actually might make cognitive symptoms worse. So that’s something that’s very individual, it depends on the individual, so it’s something that you might need to iron out for yourself. But the main take home message is that it’s really important to be aware that our behaviours are experiences and our lifestyle choices can impact on our cognitive function.
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Professor Sabina Brennan is co-director of the NEIL research program and professor at Trinity College Dublin’s Institute of Neuroscience. Her current research interests are in understanding differential decline in cognitive ageing, the early detection of cognitive decline.