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The protective effects of high-education levels on cognition in different stages of multiple sclerosis

      Highlights

      • Cognitive impairment is more frequent MS patients with lower education levels.
      • Cognitive reserve has a protective effect in patients with less than 5 years of disease.
      • After 5 years, there is a stronger association between cognition and lesion burden.

      Abstract

      Background

      Low-education attainment is associated with worse cognitive performance in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients, and possibly with a lower cognitive reserve and/or increased inflammatory activity. Cognitive reserve refers to the capability of a source of intellectual enrichment in attenuating a negative effect of a disease-related factor; while the inflammatory activity is often related to T2-lesion load (T2-LL) increase.

      Objective

      To disentangle the effects of cognitive reserve and an increased T2-LL in MS-patients with low-education levels.

      Methods

      The study included 136 MS patients and 65 healthy-controls, divided in low-education (12 years or less of school education without obtaining any technical superior degree) and high-education (more than 12 years of school education with technical or superior degree) groups. An extensive battery of neuropsychological tests was applied examining intelligence quotient and six cognitive domains. Test results were z-scored and subjects with z-scores ≤ −1.5 in two or more domains were considered cognitively impaired. To test the factors associated with worse cognitive performance, regression models were applied using average cognition as target; education level, Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS), T2-LL, disease duration, age of disease onset, age and gender as predictors. We also tested the correlation between T2-LL and cognition in the groups. To investigate the role of education level as a source of intellectual enrichment/cognitive reserve in different stages of MS, we sub-divided the MS patients in three groups according to the disease duration (less than 5 years, between 5 and 10 years and more than 10 years).

      Results

      Worse average cognition was associated with low-education level, higher T2-LL and male gender. A higher frequency of cognitively impaired patients was observed in MS patients with low-education level, in all stages of the disease. In patients with a disease duration shorter than five years, there was a lower correlation between worse average cognition and T2-LL in the high-education level group, compared to the patients with low-education level; in MS patients with longer disease duration, we observed a stronger correlation between lesion burden and cognitive impairment in both groups.

      Conclusion

      Education attainment is a source of intellectual enrichment and can enhance the cognitive reserve in MS patients. The protective effect of a high-education level was stronger in patients with less than five years of disease, suggesting a stronger role of cognitive reserve in short-term disease. In long-term disease we observed a greater impact of increased inflammatory activity on cognition.

      Keywords

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