How MS Affects the Brain

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on March 06, 2024
3 min read

When you've got multiple sclerosis (MS), losing your keys or forgetting a name can be scary. You wonder whether the illness is clouding your thinking.

Over time, about half of people with MS can have some cognitive problems. That means poor focus, slowed thinking, or a fuzzy memory.

Often, these problems are mild and don't really interrupt your daily life. It's rare to have severe thinking problems. They affect about 5% to 10% of people with MS.

The clues that you have fuzzy thinking are often subtle. You might not notice them until a friend, co-worker, or family member points them out. You may:

  • Struggle to find the right words to say
  • Forget things you need to do or tasks already done
  • Find it hard to plan ahead or set priorities
  • Have trouble concentrating, especially when two things are happening at once.

MS usually does not hurt your intelligence or long-term memory. It won't change your ability to read and carry on a conversation.

If you think you have cognitive problems, talk with your neurologist or family doctor. Fuzzy thinking can have many causes.

Your doctor can make sure your problems don't come from normal aging or drugs that may cause confusion, depression, anxiety, or fatigue.

Once you have any health problems fully treated, the next step is usually testing. Your doctor may refer you to a neuropsychologist, speech pathologist, or occupational therapist.

If test results show that MS is to blame for spotty memory or poor mental focus, you may want to try rehab to sharpen your thinking. This can include:

  • Memory exercises on a computer. Although the research on brain training is new, it's encouraging. Studies show that it might improve short-term memory.
  • Crossword or other puzzles or word games
  • Challenging reading

Simple strategies can help you stay organized and make up for memory lapses.

  • Use a calendar, whether on your computer, on your phone, or on paper, to keep track of your schedule. Send yourself reminders of important dates.
  • Make notes of things you need to remember in a notebook, on a whiteboard, or with a digital voice recorder. Use your cellphone camera to snap a photo of new people, places, and things. Email the pictures to yourself with a note so you'll remember them later.
  • Put sticky notes around your house, office, and car to jog your memory.
  • Organize your daily medicine in a pillbox. Some have built-in alarms that alert you when it's time to take your medicine.
  • Get a GPS system for your car, and put an app on your cellphone so you don't get lost.
  • Place a box or a bin in a central area, like the kitchen, to store your car keys, glasses, and other things you often use. You can also set aside a folder for important papers.
  • Take your time. It's harder to remember when you're rushed or under stress. When you learn something new, take a deep breath, pause, and concentrate on it for a few seconds.
  • Work on one task at a time. Turn off distractions like the TV, radio, and cellphone so you can concentrate.

Rarely, thinking problems become so serious that someone with MS needs constant care or can't live on their own. If this becomes an issue, discuss your options with your doctor and family. A social worker or psychologist can also help explore options for care.

Scientists are doing studies to see whether the drugs that slow the nerve damage in MS -- called disease-modifying medicines -- can help with thinking problems, too.

Others are looking at treatments, such as Alzheimer’s medications, that may temporarily improve your memory and focus. Ask your doctor to give you updates on any promising results.