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 myelin (a fatty tissue that insulates nerve fibers) and the inflammatory processes characteristic of 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 swathes of the central nervous system.
You might wonder what causes brain lesions besides MS. 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 are the result of inflammation and damage caused by a misfiring immune response and the formation of scar tissue.
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 influence what functions of the central nervous system are affected.
The frontal lobes are the largest of the brain’s lobes and 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.
The parietal lobes are at the center of the brain. This is where sensory information is processed. Your parietal lobes allow you to feel temperature, taste, touch, and movement, and they are 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.
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.
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 (CIS) and early phases of different types of MS. If these so-called silent lesions get worse over time, symptoms become more noticeable.
In some instances, lesions or their symptoms are detected during an exam, a scan, or routine monitoring for an unrelated condition. Other times, a person’s neurologic symptoms bring them to the doctor’s office and could lead to testing and a diagnosis of MS or CIS.
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.
Computed tomography (CT) is a type of 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 brain stem 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 is evidence of preexisting inflammation or lesions. If lesions do not 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 diagnostic criteria — the set of criteria most frequently used to diagnose MS and monitor MS disease progression.
If you or your health care provider suspect 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.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved more than 15 disease- modifying therapies (DMTs) to treat relapsing or progressive MS. Different treatments for MS have varying mechanisms of action, which include:
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 a balanced diet and regular exercise, can also go a long way toward keeping your brain functioning smoothly, whether or not you have MS. If you are living with MS, strategies like the following can help keep your brain healthy and limit your risk of new or worsening brain lesions:
When you join MyMSTeam, you gain a support group of more than 195,000 other people who are living with multiple sclerosis. Brain lesions are a frequent topic of conversation among MyMSTeam members.
Do you have questions about brain lesions and MS? Comment below or start a new conversation on MyMSTeam.