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A new focus on brain health

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A new focus on brain health: Amy Bowen reports from ECTRIMS 2015

ECTRIMS is the European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis. Every year they hold the world's largest conference on MS research and this year's event is taking place this week in Barcelona. Amy Bowen, our Director of Service Development, reports on what is widely expected to be the most significant event for many years

This year, the major scientific conference for MS, ECTRIMS, is being held in Barcelona. I am fortunate to be able to attend on behalf of the MS Trust and so I am going to try and share as much of the experience and learning as I can. I am determined to get to as many sessions as I can cram in, listening to researchers and clinicians from around the world sharing their findings and grappling with the big issues in MS. I will try and pick out some pearls from each day. There are lots of sessions running at the same time, so choosing is never easy, but I am going to do my best to pick the most useful and most interesting ones I can!

All about brain health

The conference hasn’t even officially started yet, but actually it's possible that I have already been to the most important session I will attend. There was a meeting this evening to launch a new report called Brain Health: Time Matters in Multiple Sclerosis. This is an international report, written by a multidisciplinary group and chaired by Professor Gavin Giovannoni from the UK. The report makes the case for a new strategy for treating MS. The focus is on brain health. That boils down to three main messages. These first two have been highlighted here in the UK over the past few weeks.

  1. To aim to start treatment soon after diagnosis (and trying to minimise any delays to diagnosis).
  2. To set a goal for treatment to not just stop relapses but also to minimise any changes that can be seen on brain scans. If either happens, then that might be time to change the treatment until the goal is reached.
  3. To encourage people with MS to adopt what is described in the report as a "brain-healthy" lifestyle. That has to do with a healthy diet, taking exercise, not smoking and keeping any other health conditions, like heart disease or diabetes, well-controlled (or to try and avoid them in the first place).

Why the focus on healthy brains?

We tend not to really think so much about keeping our brains healthy. We talk about healthy bodies and healthy minds, but not so much about healthy brains. Its really interesting to think what that might actually mean and how it might change how we live and the choices we make. Keeping your brain big and stimulated and not struggling with other challenges beyond the MS seems to be the message. I suspect that what a brain healthy lifestyle actually means is going to evolve as we all start thinking and talking about it more.

The meeting tonight focussed more on why it's important to focus on brain health. Timothy Vollmer, a neurologist from the US, talked about the protecting your ‘cognitive reserve’ so that even if there is some loss of brainpower, the brain can still adapt and compensate. By doing what you can to protect your reserve, you have more to call on if you need it. In the end, it's about playing the long game, trying to protect your health over the long term and set up the best conditions possible for your future. Drug treatment is important, but it really is only part of the story. The other part is about lifestyle.

Check it out for yourself

You can read the report at www.msbrainhealth.org. If you want to, you can also make a pledge to support this initative.

Lastly, I want to congratulate George Pepper from shift.MS who also spoke at the meeting. George has MS and spoke really honestly and passionately about the issue from a first-hand perspective. It was great.

You can follow my comments live on twitter at @amy_MSTrust Look out for another blog post from me later this week.