Question under study: Cognitive impairment occurs during multiple sclerosis (MS) and contributes to the burden of the disease, but its effect in the initial phase of MS still needs to be better understood.
Methods: We prospectively studied 127 early MS patients presenting with a clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) or definite MS, a mean disease duration of 2.6 years, and with minor disability (mean Expanded Disability Status Scale score 1.8). Patients were tested for long-term memory, executive functions, attention, fatigue, mood disorders, functional handicap and quality of life (QoL). Twenty-one CIS patients were excluded from study as the diagnosis of MS could not be confirmed.
Results: Over the 106 MS patients analysed, 31 (29.3%) were cognitively impaired (23.6% for memory, 10.4% for attention and 5.7% for executive functions). Cognitive deficits were already present in CIS patients in whom the diagnosis was not yet confirmed (20%). Impaired cognition was associated with anxiety (p = 0.05), depression(p = 0.004), fatigue (p = 0.03), handicap (p <0.001) and a lower QoL (p <0.001). After adjustment for QoL, handicap, depression, anxiety and fatigue were no longer associated with the presence of cognitive deficits.
Conclusions: In this well-defined early MS group one third of the patients already exhibited cognitive deficits, which were usually apparent in an effortful learning situation and were generally mild. Mood disorders, fatigue, handicap and decreased QoL were all associated with the occurrence of cognitive deficits. QoL itself appeared to take all the other factors into account. Our results confirm the existence of an interplay between cognitive, affective and functional changes and fatigue in early MS.