Cognitive Impairment and Multiple Sclerosis

What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive condition in which the immune system mistakes myelin, the substance responsible for protecting the nerve fibers in the central nervous system (CNS), for a foreign body.

The immune system removes some or all of the myelin sheath protecting the nerve fibers, leaving them damaged with lesions or plaques. This damage disrupts the smooth transition of messages from the brain through the central nervous system.

Messages travel slowly and are sometimes partly or completely blocked. Increasing levels of disability can be experienced as the condition progresses because the nerve fibers themselves are damaged by the attacks from the immune system.

The exact cause of MS is currently unknown; however, immunological, genetic, and viral factors have been identified as possible sources for the disease.

Multiple sclerosis or MS. autoimmune disease. the nerves of the brain and spinal cord are damaged by one
Image Credit: Designua / Shutterstock

The symptoms of the disease can include weakness, fatigue, chronic pain, muscle spasms, and both cognitive and vision problems. However, the symptom profile is different for every patient, depending on which parts of the nervous system have been damaged and the function of the damaged area.

MS is more commonly seen in women than in men, the reason for which is still unknown. The wide range of symptoms that can be associated with MS has caused the identification, progression, and treatment of MS to remain a challenge.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, an estimated 2.3 million people are currently living with MS worldwide. However, the exact number and prevalence is still unclear, especially in the United States, as MS cases are not consistently reported or tracked.

Dr. Sarah Morrow talks about cognitive impairment in MS patients

Cognitive impairment and MS

Cognitive impairment is an area of MS that is often overlooked, as the common deficits caused by the condition concern motor skills and vision. Despite this, cognitive impairment in MS has an estimated prevalence rate of 43% to 70% at earlier and later stages of the condition, respectively. Cognitive problems can appear independently of the physical problems caused by MS, which further complicates their identification.

Some of the different cognitive functions that can be affected by MS include:

  • Long-term memory
  • Attention
  • Efficiently processing information
  • Executive functioning (ability to plan and anticipate outcomes in complex goal-orientated tasks)
  • Deficits in processing speed

Processing speed, visual learning, and memory are thought to be the most commonly affected cognitive functions in MS.

Long-term memory

Long-term memory is the most commonly impaired cognitive function in MS with rates of 40% to 65%. Recent research has shown that the main cause for long-term memory impairment has less to do with difficulties in the retrieval of information, and more to do with the initial learning of the information.

Patients with MS require information to be repeated more; however, once the information has been learned, MS patients can recall the information at the same levels as patients without MS. Other factors related to learning abilities affected by MS include slow processing speeds and difficulty to disregard irrelevant information or stimuli.


The processes identified under ‘attention’ vary significantly. As a result, concrete conclusions on the effect of MS on attention processes have been difficult to make. Maintaining sustained attention is typically affected, as well as the ability to multitask.

Fatigue is also a factor that can affect attention processes, in particular, the ability to hold attention for long periods of time, but is often overlooked.

Information Processing

Problems with information processing have been seen across the disease course and are one of the most common cognitive symptoms of MS. The ability to maintain information for a short period of time, also known as working memory, is negatively affected by MS.

Impairment in information processing is usually seen concurrently with the other cognitive deficits in MS. Processing speed can be used to predict a patient’s long-term cognitive decline and also predict their performance in everyday tasks.

Executive functioning

Defined as the cognitive abilities necessary for goal-directed tasks, complex decision making, and adaptation to changes in the environment, executive functioning is one of the less frequent deficits seen in patients with MS.

Executive tasks include:

  • Abstract and conceptual thinking
  • Planning and organization
  • Fluency
  • Anticipate outcomes

Deficits in fluency can cause patients to struggle with both phonemic (letter and word fluency) and semantic fluency (word category fluency). Depression affects the measurement of executive functioning and should be taken into account when examining and interpreting a patient’s performance in executive functioning.

Processing speed

A reduction in processing speed is the most common cognitive area affected by MS, and deficits are seen concurrent with other areas of decline. Moreover, there is a positive correlation between increased demand for working memory and deficits in processing speed.

A sensitive test of cognitive dysfunction is a paced auditory serial addition test (PASAT), which tests working memory that puts a high demand on a patient’s processing speed.

Image Credit: sfam_photo /

Treatment of cognitive impairments in MS

Cognitive rehabilitation for MS

Cognitive rehabilitation programs concentrate on improving attention and memory deficits, as well as the patient's communication skills. Unfortunately, the effect of these programs has not been consistent. Despite this, available programs can provide a starting point from which to build further research to improve future rehabilitation.

Pharmacological treatment for MS

Disease-modifying therapies, which are drugs that change the MS disease course, have been explored to improve the cognitive effects of MS. Studies on disease-modifying therapies have not focused on cognitive improvement; therefore, their benefits on this symptom of MS are difficult to determine.


Although MS is mainly associated with a decline in motor skills, cognitive functions are commonly affected by the disease, with long-term memory and information processing being the most affected areas.

There are currently a few studies exploring the treatment of the cognitive deficits of MS. Cognitive rehabilitation programs available; however, their results have been varied with some studies showing no improvements at all. Pharmacological treatments have been explored but studies in this area had significant limitations.

As a whole, it is believed that further extensive research needs to be conducted in this area to develop the understanding of the disease course and development of effective treatments.


Further Reading

Last Updated: May 19, 2021

Lois Zoppi

Written by

Lois Zoppi

Lois is a freelance copywriter based in the UK. She graduated from the University of Sussex with a BA in Media Practice, having specialized in screenwriting. She maintains a focus on anxiety disorders and depression and aims to explore other areas of mental health including dissociative disorders such as maladaptive daydreaming.


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