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Objectives: To establish the frequency of cognitive impairment in a population based sample of patients with recently diagnosed relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), and to determine the relation between cognitive abnormalities and the extent of macroscopic and microscopic tissue damage revealed by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetisation transfer (MT) imaging.
Methods: 58 patients with RRMS consecutively diagnosed in the previous six months in Aquitaine and 70 healthy controls underwent a battery of neuropsychological tests. Lesion load and atrophy indices (brain parenchymal fraction and ventricular fraction) were measured on brain MRI. MT ratio (MTR) histograms were obtained from lesions, normal appearing white matter (NAWM), and normal appearing grey matter (NAGM). Gadolinium enhanced lesions were counted.
Results: 44 RRMS patients could be individually matched with healthy controls for age, sex, and education. Patients performed worse in tests of verbal and spatial memory, attention, information processing speed, inhibition, and conceptualisation. Measures of attention and information processing speed were correlated with lesion load, mean NAWM MTR, and the peak location of the NAGM MTR histogram in the patients. Multivariate regression analysis showed that lesion load and mean NAWM MTR were among the MR indices that were most significantly associated with impairment of attention and information processing speed in these early RRMS cases.
Conclusions: Cognitive impairment appears to be common in the early stages of RRMS, mainly affecting attention, information processing speed, memory, inhibition, and conceptualisation. The severity of these deficits reflects the extent of the lesions and the severity of tissue disorganisation outside lesions.