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Innovative study teaches patients psychological strategies to help manage multiple sclerosis

World-first MS trial

October 2018

Innovative study teaches patients psychological strategies to help manage multiple sclerosis

Innovative study teaches patients psychological strategies to help manage multiple sclerosis

People in Sydney Local Health District who have multiple sclerosis are set to benefit from a world-first study which takes a holistic approach to the management of the chronic disease.

RPA consultant neurologist Professor Michael Barnett and his colleagues at the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney are investigating the benefit of psychological strategies in treating patients with MS.

Called Combat MS, the trial teaches participants evidence-based skills to help them adjust to their condition - socially and emotionally. 

“Most patients adjust to how the disease can affect them physically. But, we recognise that there is a lack of services for people with MS to help them with cognitive and psychological issues,” Professor Barnett said.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition of the central nervous system, interfering with nerve impulses within the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. MS affects more than 25,600 Australians with roughly three times as many women affected as men.

There is currently no known cure for MS however there are a number of treatment options available to help manage symptoms and slow progression of the disease.

The RPA MS Clinic has about 1000 patients on its books and about 70 per cent of them participate in clinical trials run in collaboration with the Brain and Mind Centre.

Combat MS is a 10-week trial where patients are taught a program of “thinking skills” and ways to improve their psychological wellbeing.

Clinical neuropsychology registrar Caitlin Dawes said patients are taught cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques so they can identify – and change – unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving.

“Some people might think they are a burden on their family and friends and withdraw from activities … but when they talk to family and friends they find that’s not the case,” Ms Dawes said.

Patients also use computer-based brain training programs to help address cognitive difficulties.

“These are exercises to train the brain to improve a person’s memory, attention span, and speed of thinking,” she said.

Neuropsychologist Dr Keri Diamond said most people who are diagnosed with MS are between the ages of 20-40.

“This is the prime of people’s lives – when they are studying, working, having children. There is little support out there for them. So, what sometimes ends up happening is that they withdraw from activities, they stop working and stop seeing friends, when in actual fact this doesn’t have to be the case.” Dr Diamond said.

The trial is being funded by a pharmaceutical company, which Professor Barnett said is a big step forward given that it’s not investigating a drug.

“The university and a pharmaceutical company, Novartis, are funding it even though it has nothing to do with a drug. They recognise that there’s a problem as to the provision of services for people with MS. All of the big companies realise that corporate citizenship is what determines their perception [in the community],” he said.

Professor Barnett said so far there’s been a positive response from the patients at the MS clinic. During the weekly 2.5 hour group sessions, participants often meet other people with MS for the first time, helping to forge new support networks.

“At the end of the trial we hope to have comprehensive evidence about whether this approach works and the durability of it,” Professor Barnett said.

For more information about the clinical trial, please email


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