SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.39 issue4Poor-quality prenatal dietary patterns are related to the mental health of mothers and children – could dietary improvement break the cycle?When the past is present author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Pagealphabetic serial listing  

Services on Demand




Related links


Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry

Print version ISSN 1516-4446On-line version ISSN 1809-452X

Rev. Bras. Psiquiatr. vol.39 no.4 São Paulo Oct./Dec. 2017  Epub Oct 02, 2017 


The relationship between multiple sclerosis and neuropsychiatric syndromes

James McLoughlin1 

Brian P. Hallahan1 

1Department of Psychiatry, National University of Ireland Galway, Galway, Ireland

An academic appreciation of the link between multiple sclerosis (MS) and psychiatric illness has existed for almost one hundred years,1 with a marked increase in the prevalence of affective, anxiety and psychotic disorders occurring in MS.2

The update article by Chalah & Ayache3 comprehensively examines the existing literature on the concept of a “psychiatric attack” preceding an initial presentation of MS. Even though psychiatric disorders usually present subsequent to a diagnosis of MS, up to 2% of individuals experience a first presentation of MS consisting solely of psychiatric symptoms.4 As described by Chalah & Ayache, there are a number of reports of even higher prevalence rates of psychiatric symptoms or diagnoses prior to the onset of MS. Disentangling when psychiatric episodes may actually herald a diagnosis of MS is challenging, and the authors in this article provide insights based on clinical presentations where clinicians should consider MS as a differential diagnosis of a psychiatric episode. Such insights derive from case studies, case series or underpowered retrospective cohort studies – by no means is this note a critique of the authors, but rather a recognition of the dearth of literature on the topic, to date.

The authors discuss the highly practical suggestion of using “red flags” or atypical psychiatric presentations as a prompt for clinicians to actively consider MS as a differential diagnosis. These red flags include an atypical late onset of psychiatric symptoms or a negative family history of the presenting psychiatric episode. In addition, the authors suggest that a lack of therapeutic efficacy of appropriate psychotropic interventions should prompt clinicians to reappraise the psychiatric diagnosis and consider an organic etiology such as MS. In these cases, undertaking a full clinical work-up inclusive of neuroimaging is suggested, with the potential of imaging findings helping determine the etiology of an individual’s symptomatology. The association between depressive symptoms with an abnormal affect and frontal lobe pathology in a first presentation of MS is discussed by the authors. Of course, the counter-argument of brain magnetic resonance imaging providing incidental findings, confusing the clinical picture, also requires consideration.5

An earlier detection of MS in individuals could lead to more appropriate pharmacotherapeutic interventions and reduce morbidity. Consequently, a greater awareness of when psychiatric symptoms relate to an organic disorder such as MS rather than to a primary psychiatric disorder is optimal, and thus, this article by Chalah & Ayache is timely and of considerable clinical relevance.

Neuropsychiatric signs and symptoms occur frequently in individuals with MS and may, as stated, be an initial presenting complaint prior to a definitive diagnosis of MS – although they more commonly occur with disease progression. Whilst it remains difficult to elucidate if neuropsychiatric symptoms are indicative of MS severity,6 earlier detection of either or both neurological and psychiatric disorders can reduce morbidity for patients. Additional research in larger cohorts of individuals with MS may allow for the development of appropriate evidence-based guidelines for clinicians to follow and thus help differentiate when a psychiatric episode may indeed be heralding a diagnosis of MS. In the interim, the “red flags,” as described by Chalah & Ayache, provide a pragmatic guideline for clinicians.


1. Cottrel SS, Wilson SA. The affective symptomatology of disseminated sclerosis: a study of 100 cases. J Neurol Psychopathol. 1926;7:1-30. [ Links ]

2. Murphy R, O’Donoghue S, Counihan T, McDonald C, Calabresi PA, Ahmed MA, et al. Neuropsychiatric syndromes of multiple sclerosis. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2017;88:697-708. [ Links ]

3. Chalah MA, Ayache SS. Psychiatric event in multiple sclerosis: could it be the tip of the iceberg? Rev Bras Psiquiatr. 2017 Mar 23. doi: 10.1590/1516-4446-2016-2105. [Epub ahead of print] [ Links ]

4. Lo Fermo S, Barone R, Patti F, Laisa P, Cavallaro TL, Nicoletti A, et al. Outcome of psychiatric symptoms presenting at onset of multiple sclerosis: a retrospective study. Mult Scler. 2010;16:742-8. [ Links ]

5. Håberg AK, Hammer TA, Kvistad KA, Rydland J, Muller TB, Eikenes L, et al. Incidental intracranial findings and their clinical impact; the HUNT MRI study in a general population of 1006 participants between 50-66 years. PLoS One. 2016;11:e0151080. [ Links ]

6. Feinstein A, du Boulay G, Ron MA. Psychotic illness in multiple sclerosis. A clinical and magnetic resonance imaging study. Br J Psychiatry. 1992;161:680-5. [ Links ]

Correspondence: Brian Hallahan, Department of Psychiatry, National University of Ireland Galway, Galway, Ireland. E-mail:

Disclosure The authors report no conflicts of interest.

Creative Commons License This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License, which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.