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Multiple Sclerosis Health Center

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Active Mind May Protect MS Patients

Intellectual Enrichment Helped Preserve Memory and Learning in Multiple Sclerosis Patients, Study Says
By Katrina Woznicki
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

June 14, 2010 -- A small study of multiple sclerosis (MS) patients shows that maintaining an intellectually active lifestyle can help preserve learning and memory, even among patients with a high degree of brain damage.

Although there’s no indication that being mentally engaged protects against brain damage itself, the findings do suggest that an active mind may be better equipped to retain its functions even in the event of brain damage.

MS is a neurodegenerative disease that causes inflammation to the central nervous system, which can lead to brain damage. Loss of cognitive function, including memory and learning capabilities, is common among MS patients. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS affects about 400,000 people in the United States and as many as 2.1 million worldwide, mostly women between the ages of 20 and 50.

MS: Protecting the Mind

Researchers at the Kessler Foundation Research Center in West Orange, N.J., studied 39 women and five men around age 45 who had MS for an average of 11 years and who did not have any history of mental illness, learning disabilities, or substance abuse.

The investigators measured the patients’ mental activity by having them complete verbal and memory tests and by evaluating their vocabulary -- often considered a marker for intellectual enrichment. The patients also underwent magnetic resonance imaging or brain scans to assess any brain damage.

Overall, patients who had lived a mentally active lifestyle, one that was filled with education, reading, and other mentally engaging activities, showed a greater buffer against mental decline -- even if they had extensive brain damage.

For example, with the verbal learning and memory tests, patients were given as many as 15 tries to learn a list of 10 words and then were asked to recall those 10 words after 30 minutes. The recall decline among the more mentally active group was only 1% even among those who had high levels of brain damage, compared with 16% among those who led less intellectually stimulating lifestyles. People with less intellectually enriching lives had slower recall and slower learning.

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