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What Is Cognition Testing for Multiple Sclerosis?

Updated on December 27, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Article written by
Alison Channon

  • Undergoing cognition testing is a proactive step you can take to make sure you’re doing everything you can to manage your multiple sclerosis (MS).
  • Cognition testing can help you and your health care team identify any cognitive issues and possible interventions to improve your cognitive function.
  • There are several cognition tests designed to evaluate cognitive function in people with MS.

Problems with cognition and cognitive decline are common among people with multiple sclerosis. An estimated 40 percent to 65 percent of people with MS experience cognitive symptoms.

Problems with cognition can include difficulties with working memory (the information you hold in your mind at a given time) or episodic memory (remembering specific events from the past), as well as attention and the ability to think and reason.

Cognitive impairments can be a frustrating aspect of life with MS. Changes to your cognition can affect personal relationships, work, and the ability to perform daily tasks.

Proactive steps recommended by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society can help you manage MS-related cognitive deficits and their impact on your quality of life. Cognition testing can be an early step to support your cognitive function.

Cognitive Testing Explained

Cognition testing is used to understand a person’s cognitive capabilities. Cognition tests for MS fall under the umbrella of neuropsychological testing and are designed to:

  • Detect brain dysfunction across multiple cognitive areas
  • Improve understanding of the changes happening in the brain
  • Assist in recommendations for treatment planning

Neuropsychological tests can be used for a diverse range of neurological conditions. A neuropsychological test is not the same as a mental health evaluation, although some tests may include a section aimed at assessing mood disorders such as depression.

Several types of tests have been developed to evaluate cognition in people with MS. You may receive short screening tests in the doctor’s office or a more formal assessment supervised by a neuropsychologist.

You might also hear your doctor refer to cognition testing as “testing batteries” or “batteries of tests” — this simply means taking several tests that assess different areas of cognitive function in people with MS.

Cognition testing can help you and your doctor understand the challenges you’re experiencing and identify opportunities to support you.

Have you talked to your doctor about cognition testing?
Have you taken a cognition test before?
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here to share your experience in the comments below.

Benefits of Cognition Testing for MS

Cognition testing has many benefits for individuals with MS, including informing your treatment plan and monitoring your condition over time. Here are some of the things cognition testing can do.

Establish a Baseline of Cognitive Function

A baseline allows your health care provider to understand how your cognition changes over time. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommends adults with MS undergo annual cognition testing to monitor disease progression, identify cognition changes, and see how well treatments are working.

Determine Potential Interventions

Cognition testing can help determine the areas of cognition where you have the most challenges. This allows your provider to recommend the best interventions to help strengthen your cognitive function. Additionally, understanding your cognition can help you and your health care provider evaluate and tailor your treatment plan to your needs.

Narrow Down the Cause of Cognitive Challenges

A comprehensive evaluation can help determine if depression, anxiety, fatigue, other health problems, or medication side effects are impacting cognition.

Meet Requirements for Government Disability Programs

A thorough evaluation from a particular type of provider (such as a neuropsychologist) may be necessary to qualify for government disability programs.

Having more information about your cognition helps you and your doctor choose interventions, exercises, and other strategies that can support cognitive function.

What To Expect From Cognition Testing

As you consider cognition testing, it’s helpful to know what to expect. You cannot study for a cognition test. However, you can prepare by getting a good night’s sleep and avoiding alcohol 24 hours before the test.

The time it takes to complete a cognition test can vary. Some tests can be completed in a few minutes, while others can take several hours.

Comprehensive neuropsychological tests often include physical assessments. Longer testing times and physical activities can cause some people to feel tired afterward. Ask your provider how long testing will last.

You may be given an iPad, other tablet, or a paper form to take a test on your own — sometimes during a regular medical appointment or even while waiting to be seen. In other cases, your doctor may ask you questions verbally. Some testing batteries combine cognitive and physical assessments.

Types of Cognition Tests for MS

There are several types of cognition testing. Your doctor will help determine which tests are best for you. Below are examples of commonly used cognition tests.

Symbol Digit Modalities Test

The Symbol Digit Modalities Test (SDMT) was introduced in 1982 and is one of the most widely used rapid cognition tests for adults with MS. A person with MS is shown a key that pairs numbers with symbols and is then given 90 seconds to match the symbols and numbers. The entire test can be completed in five minutes or less. The SDMT can be performed verbally or in writing.

This test is often used as a front-line assessment before someone with MS is referred to other forms of cognition testing or to other professionals who can support cognition. Also, SDMT is helpful for assessing cognitive changes during MS relapses.

Processing Speed Test

The Processing Speed Test (PST) — part of the Multiple Sclerosis Performance Test — takes two minutes to complete. A few additional minutes are needed for explanation. This test is similar to the SDMT, but it is self-administered on a tablet or iPad in your provider’s office. In one single-center study, there was some evidence that the PST is slightly more sensitive than the SDMT to certain brain lesions.

Computerized Speed Cognitive Test

The Computerized Speed Cognitive Test (CSCT) takes five minutes to complete and is a verbal assessment rather than a written or tablet test. The CSCT is particularly good for identifying information-processing impairment.

Multiple Sclerosis Neuropsychological Questionnaire

The Multiple Sclerosis Neuropsychological Questionnaire (MSNQ) takes five minutes to complete. This is a self-reported survey about cognitive function that can be filled out by a person with MS and also by someone they interact with regularly. The MSNQ can help identify symptoms of depression and assess a person’s level of awareness about their own cognitive abilities.

Multiple Sclerosis Functional Composite

The Multiple Sclerosis Functional Composite (MSFC) includes one cognitive test, a timed walking test, and a test of arm function. This test can be performed by a trained professional and does not require a physician or neuropsychologist. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Clinical Assessment Task Force developed the MSFC for use in clinical trials.

Brief International Cognitive Assessment for Multiple Sclerosis

The Brief International Cognitive Assessment for Multiple Sclerosis (BICAMS) includes the SDMT and other tests to evaluate language ability and spatial recall. The BICAMS takes 15 minutes to complete.

Minimal Assessment of Cognitive Function in Multiple Sclerosis

The Minimal Assessment of Cognitive Function in Multiple Sclerosis (MACFIMS) is a comprehensive evaluation that can last 90 minutes. It includes the SDMT, as well as a battery of tests that evaluate language ability, working memory, spatial memory, and executive function. The MACFIMS is unique in its ability to also assess executive function. This exam is administered by or under the supervision of a neuropsychologist.

Taking the First Step

Cognition testing is the first step. Based on the results, your doctor may recommend further evaluations and follow-ups with other health care providers. Interventions such as physical exercise, cognitive rehabilitation, brain exercises, diet, and disease-modifying therapies may be prescribed to improve your cognitive performance.

Building a Community

MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 177,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.

Have you talked to your doctor about cognition testing? Have you taken any of these tests? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting in Activities.

References
  1. Cognitive Impairment in Early Stages of Multiple Sclerosis — Neurological Sciences
  2. Managing Cognitive Problems in MS — National Multiple Sclerosis Society
  3. Recommendations for Cognitive Screening and Management in Multiple Sclerosis Care — Multiple Sclerosis Journal
  4. Neuropsychological Assessment: Past and Future — Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society
  5. Neuropsychological Evaluation FAQ — UNC School of Medicine
  6. Cognitive Function in Patients With Multiple Sclerosis: Impairment and Treatment — International Journal of MS Care
  7. The Multiple Sclerosis Performance Test (MSPT): An iPad-Based Disability Assessment Tool — Journal of Visualized Experiments
  8. Processing Speed Test: Validation of a Self-Administered, iPad-Based Tool for Screening Cognitive Dysfunction in a Clinic Setting — Multiple Sclerosis Journal
  9. Computerized Neuropsychological Assessment Devices in Multiple Sclerosis: A Systematic Review — Multiple Sclerosis (Houndmills, Basingstoke, England)
  10. Validity of the Symbol Digit Modalities Test as a Cognition Performance Outcome Measure for Multiple Sclerosis — Multiple Sclerosis Journal
  11. Estimating Everyday Neuropsychological Functioning in Multiple Sclerosis: Reliability and Validity of the Greek Multiple Sclerosis Neuropsychological Questionnaire — Multiple Sclerosis International
  12. Use of the Multiple Sclerosis Functional Composite as an Outcome Measure in a Phase 3 Clinical Trial — Archives of Neurology
  13. Cognition During and After Multiple Sclerosis Relapse as Assessed With the Brief International Cognitive Assessment for Multiple Sclerosis — Scientific Reports
All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Alison Channon has nearly a decade of experience writing about chronic health conditions, mental health, and women's health. Learn more about her here.

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