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Brain Lesions in MS: What You Must Know

Medically reviewed by Amit M. Shelat, D.O.
Written by Nyaka Mwanza
Updated on January 31, 2024

  • Brain lesions — areas of damaged brain tissue — in multiple sclerosis (MS) are caused by an abnormal immune system response.
  • Lesions in the central nervous system cause different symptoms, depending on their location, size, and severity.
  • Disease-modifying medications and lifestyle changes can help prevent MS brain lesions from forming or worsening.

Lesions in multiple sclerosis are the result of damage to the cells of the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord. “Sclerosis” refers to the characteristic scar tissue that forms in lesions in the brains of people who have MS. MS lesions are also known as scleroses or plaques. This scar tissue is a result of damage to the myelin sheath (a fatty tissue that insulates nerve fibers) and the inflammatory processes that characterize MS.

Lesions in people with MS usually appear in the brainstem, cerebellum, spinal cord, and cranial nerves (including the optic, trigeminal, and facial nerves). Lesions can appear in one specific area of the brain, in multiple areas, or in large swaths of the central nervous system.

Causes of Brain Lesions

Brain lesions can occur for many reasons. Brain trauma, viral or bacterial infections, age, or a family history of brain lesions may play a role. Autoimmune diseases, such as lupus — and multiple sclerosis — can also lead to the development of brain lesions. In the case of MS, brain lesions result from inflammation and damage caused by a misfiring immune response and the formation of scar tissue.

Brain Lesions and MS Symptoms

Symptoms of MS vary from person to person and depend on where MS lesions develop in the central nervous system. The severity, size, and location of lesions all depend on disease activity and determine which functions of the central nervous system are affected.

Frontal Lobe

The frontal lobes — the largest of the brain’s lobes — are located immediately behind the forehead. The frontal lobes contain the motor area, which is responsible for voluntary movement. They also control memory, intelligence, reasoning, concentration, and aspects of your personality. Lesions on the frontal lobe can cause symptoms including speech impairment, loss of motor function on one or both sides of the body, and changes in mood or behavior.

Parietal Lobe

The parietal lobes are at the center of the brain and process sensory information. Your parietal lobes allow you to feel temperature, taste, touch, and movement, and they’re also important for reading and doing math. Lesions in the parietal lobes may cause symptoms such as forgetting words for common objects and loss of sensations such as heat, cold, and pain. The parietal lobe also carries a portion of the nerve fibers originating from the eyes, so lesions in this area can affect the lower part of the visual field.

Occipital Lobe

The occipital lobes are located at the back of the brain. Their job is to process images from the eyes and link that information with images stored in memory. Essentially, your occipital lobes enable you to identify what you’re seeing. Lesions in the occipital lobes may cause changes in your vision. Optic neuritis, which can include blurry vision and pain with eye movement, is a common early symptom of MS.

Temporal Lobe

The temporal lobes are located in the center of the brain — specifically, they’re in front of the occipital lobes and beneath the parietal and frontal lobes. Temporal lobes play a large role in the senses of hearing, touch, and smell, and they’re key to forming and storing memories. Lesions in the temporal lobes can result in cognitive symptoms, including moodiness, forgetfulness, and difficulty focusing — also known as “brain fog.” Sensory symptoms, such as loss of taste, smell, and hearing, can be symptomatic of lesions in this part of the brain, as can changes in behavior, mood, and emotions. The temporal lobes also carry optic nerve fibers, and lesions in this area can cause problems with the upper field of vision.

Brain lesions don’t always cause noticeable symptoms, especially in the case of clinically isolated syndrome and early phases of different types of MS. If these so-called silent lesions get worse over time, symptoms become more noticeable.

Tools Doctors Use To Detect Brain Lesions

In some instances, lesions or their symptoms are detected during an exam, a scan, or routine monitoring for an unrelated condition. Other times, neurologic symptoms bring a person to the doctor’s office, and then image testing, cerebrospinal fluid analysis, and blood tests result in a diagnosis of MS or clinically isolated syndrome.

Diagnosing lesions in the brain may involve a neurologist taking a complete medical history, conducting a physical examination, and performing a detailed neurological exam. The doctor may use vibration or hot or cold objects to assess your ability to detect sensations. They may gently touch a sharp object to your skin or pinch your cheek or another part of your body to check pain responses. These stimulus response tests may also help pinpoint the location of the lesion or lesions.

Diagnostic Imaging Tests for MS Lesions

Computed tomography (CT) is a type of neuroimaging (brain and spinal cord imaging) technology that uses radiation to take images of brain tissue. A solution may be injected into a person’s vein to help highlight brain structures. CT scans can be used to diagnose brain lesions.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a noninvasive diagnostic tool that uses magnetic fields and computer technology to produce three-dimensional images of the brain. An MRI scan shows greater detail in brain tissue, the cerebellum, and the brainstem than a CT scan. Brain lesions appear as darker or lighter spots on an MRI scan, and the findings are important for making a diagnosis.

MRI conducted with a contrast fluid called gadolinium can show whether the lesions are active (recent) and if there’s evidence of preexisting inflammation or lesions. If lesions don’t appear brighter on a high-contrast MRI, they are likely not new lesions and are older than three months.

The type, size, and distribution of brain lesions in MS are also an important part of the McDonald criteria — the set of diagnostic criteria developed by an international panel of experts that’s most frequently used to diagnose MS and monitor MS disease progression.

If you or your health care provider suspects your symptoms may be related to brain lesions, prompt attention is your best bet. A timely, thorough evaluation by a neurologist with specialized training is very important to identify the underlying cause of the lesions and recommend the most appropriate treatment plan.

Prevention of New or Worsening MS Lesions

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved more than two dozen disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) to treat relapsing or progressive MS. Different treatments for MS have varying mechanisms of action, which include:

  • Reducing inflammation and demyelination (damage to and destruction of myelin)
  • Managing the response of immune system cells
  • Lowering the quantities of certain immune system cells involved in demyelinating MS attacks

Highly effective (HE) DMTs have been found to be especially good at slowing disease and disability progression in some people. HE DMTs include:

Over time, it’s common to switch treatments for MS.

Other Ways To Keep Your Brain Healthy

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic illness with no known cure. Regular monitoring and follow-up care are important parts of tracking and managing disease progression. Brain lesions can be caused or worsened by factors other than MS, such as aging or stroke. Maintaining a generally healthy lifestyle, including eating nutritious foods and being physically active, can go a long way toward keeping your brain functioning smoothly, whether or not you have MS.

If You Smoke, Stop

Toxins in cigarette smoke can worsen brain lesions and their symptoms. Studies have shown that people who smoke are more likely to develop MS. In a 2022 study of 85 people with MS, researchers reported that those who smoked had a higher lesion volume (more damaged brain tissue) after 10 years, adding that further MS research into a possible link between smoking and lesions is needed. Talk to your health care provider if you smoke and need help quitting.

Make Healthy Lifestyle Changes

If you’re living with MS, strategies like the following can also help keep your brain healthy and limit your risk of new or worsening brain lesions:

  • Control your blood pressure. Vascular (affecting blood vessels) disease and issues such as stroke and high blood pressure can cause lesions in the brain.
  • Choose heart-healthy foods. Diets high in excess fats have been linked to lesions in the brain. Following a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet can reduce the likelihood of more lesions.
  • Wear a helmet when riding a bike or playing contact sports. Traumatic brain injury can cause or worsen lesions.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On MyMSTeam, the online community for those living with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones, more than 207,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS. Brain lesions are a frequent topic of conversation among MyMSTeam members.

Do you have questions about brain lesions and MS? What strategies do you follow to keep your brain healthy? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a new conversation on your Activities page.

Updated on January 31, 2024
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Amit M. Shelat, D.O. is a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology and the American College of Physicians. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Nyaka Mwanza has worked with large global health nonprofits focused on improving health outcomes for women and children. Learn more about her here.

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