Increased communication in a network of brain regions may result in cognitive decline in early-stage multiple sclerosis (MS) patients, according to a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study reportedly sought to pinpoint a potential link between the structural damage caused by MS, the cognitive problems experienced by patients, and changes in brain networking. The research was a joint effort by Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Mo, the University Medical Center at Hamburg-Eppendorf, headquartered in Hamburg, Germany, and the University of Tübingen, based in Baden-Wüttemberg, also in Germany.

Researchers say the study encompassed 16 patients who had been diagnosed with the disease within the last 4 years. A control group of 16 healthy patients was also observed, researchers add. The study indicates that the patients underwent behavioral and cognitive tests, including brain scans to spotlight any structural damage. 

The study’s results indicated that during the brain scans, the MS patients exhibited damage to brain cell branches. Researchers add that greater damage led to a greater likelihood of difficulties in brain function. The results suggest that a range of cognitive domains, including decision-making, memory, attention, and other facets are affected. Researchers spotlighted changes in one component of cognitive function, reportedly defined as, “cognitive efficiency” and indicated an association of the component with a majority of the symptoms and deficits measured by the cognitive and behavioral tests.

The results also suggest that patients with lower cognitive efficiency had enhanced connections in the brain’s default network.

David Hawellek, MSc, lead author, University Medical Center at Hamburg-Eppendorf, reports that the correlation is surprising, “Because normally we would expect cognitive efficiency to improve with increases in the connectivity of the default mode network,” Hawellek says. Studies in the past have suggested that the strength of connections in the default mode network serve as an indicator of how well other networks can interact to support brain function, Hawellek explains, “But that doesn’t seem to be the case here.”

Maurizio Corbetta, MD, Norman J. Stupp professor of neurology, Washington University in St. Louis, study co-author, reports that the current study may allow researchers to look, “beyond the wide-ranging symptoms of MS to help us quantify the disorder’s effects on the brain. This assessment could be very useful in diagnosing the disease and tracking the effectiveness of new treatments.”

Source: Washington University in St. Louis