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.
"The findings suggest that enriching activities may build a person's 'cognitive reserve,' which can be thought of as a buffer against disease-related memory impairment,” says study author James Sumowski, PhD. “Differences in cognitive reserve among persons with MS may explain why some persons suffer memory problems early in the disease, while others do not develop memory problems until much later, if at all.”
The study appears in the June 15 issue of Neurology and was supported by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the National Institutes of Health.
Preventing Mental Decline
In an accompanying editorial, Peter A. Arnett, PhD, of Penn State University in University Park, Pa., called the study “provocative.”
“These results open up a whole new area of inquiry in MS that could have a significant impact," he writes. "There's the potential that people could improve their cognitive reserve to reduce or prevent cognitive problems later.”
Sumowski says people with lower than average intellectual enrichment may be at a higher risk for MS-related cognitive impairment. “Patients with lower enrichment may benefit from early intervention cognitive rehabilitation programs to reduce the risk of future impairment,” Sumowski and his team write.
The authors note that education attainment may play a role in a person’s ability to live a mentally active life. They also said their findings reflect the results of other studies, which suggested activities such as reading, crossword puzzles, and other forms of intellectual stimulation might help protect against cognitive decline in other neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.There is growing interest among scientists in neuroplasticity, a concept that suggests that the brain can be malleable and that mental stimulation can help keep the brain fit and supple.