Cognitive Efficacy of Pharmacologic Treatments in Multiple Sclerosis: A Systematic Review

CNS Drugs. 2020 Jun;34(6):599-628. doi: 10.1007/s40263-020-00734-4.


Introduction: Cognitive impairment is prevalent and debilitating among persons with multiple sclerosis (MS). While many pharmacologic treatments have shown good efficacy in reducing clinical relapses, brain lesions, and improving certain physical symptoms, their efficacy for improving cognitive function is not well understood.

Objectives: The current systematic review aimed to evaluate the efficacy of pharmacologic treatments for improving cognitive function among persons with MS.

Methods: A literature search was conducted through the PubMed and PsycINFO databases. Two independent reviewers assessed each paper, and a third reviewer weighed in if the two reviewers could not reach a consensus. Classification of evidence was determined using the 2017 American Academy of Neurology (AAN) criteria for therapeutic trials. Standardized effect sizes (Cohen's d) were calculated to compare across studies.

Results: Eighty-seven journal articles published between 1990 and January 2020 were included in the current review. Overall, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of pharmacologic treatments to improve cognitive function in persons with MS. There were many contradictory findings observed in this review, which may be due to possible unidentified moderating treatment response variables and/or lack of standardization in assessment procedures. There was also an overreliance on statistical significance (most papers did not provide sizes of treatment effects), which may not be clinically meaningful.

Conclusions: Higher-quality randomized controlled trials are needed to establish the cognitive efficacy of pharmacologic treatments for MS-related cognitive dysfunction, with cognition as the primary endpoint. Researchers are urged to use standardized criteria (such as the AAN criteria) to guide their research designs. Clinicians should consider effect sizes of studies before deciding whether to prescribe certain medications to ameliorate cognitive symptoms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / drug therapy*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / etiology
  • Humans
  • Multiple Sclerosis / complications
  • Multiple Sclerosis / drug therapy*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Research Design