In early multiple sclerosis, a clearer understanding of normal-brain tissue microstructural and metabolic abnormalities will provide valuable insights into its pathophysiology. Here, we studied the brain of patients with their first demyelinating episode using neurite orientation dispersion and density imaging (NODDI), for information about neuro-axonal density and spatial distribution, and 23Na MRI, for total sodium concentration reflecting neuro-axonal metabolic dysfunction and loss.
To detect, using a multi-parametric quantitative MRI approach, clinically relevant alterations in the brain of early patients not captured by conventional MRI.
We enrolled 42 patients with clinically isolated syndrome or multiple sclerosis within 3 months from the onset and 16 healthy controls. We assessed physical and cognitive scales. On a 3T scanner, we acquired brain and spinal cord structural scans, and brain NODDI. Thirty-two patients and 13 healthy controls also underwent brain 23Na MRI. In the brain normal-appearing white matter, white matter lesions, and grey matter, we measured, from NODDI, the neurite density index (NDI), a marker of neuro-axonal density, and the orientation dispersion index (ODI), reflecting the fanning and crossing of neurites, and, from 23Na MRI, the TSC. We used linear regression models, adjusted for brain parenchymal fraction and lesion load, and Spearman correlation tests. For robust regression estimates, we used a p≤0.01.
Patients showed higher ODI in normal-appearing white matter, including the corpus callosum, where they also showed lower NDI and higher TSC, compared with controls. In grey matter, compared with controls, patients had lower ODI in frontal, parietal and temporal cortex; lower NDI in parietal, temporal and occipital cortex; and higher TSC in limbic and frontal cortex. Brain volumes did not differ between patients and controls. In patients, higher ODI in corpus callosum was associated with worse performance on timed walk test (p=0.009, B=0.01, 99% Confidence Interval=0.0001-0.02), independent of brain and lesion volumes. Higher TSC in left frontal middle gyrus was associated with higher disability on Expanded Disability Status Scale (rs=0.5, p=0.005).
We found increased axonal dispersion in normal-appearing white matter, particularly corpus callosum, where we found also reduced axonal density and total sodium accumulation suggesting that this structure can be early affected by neurodegeneration. The association between increased axonal dispersion in the corpus callosum and worse walking performance implies that morphological and metabolic alterations in this structure may contribute to disability in multiple sclerosis. Brain volumes were neither altered nor related to disability in patients, so these two advanced MRI techniques can be more sensitive at detecting clinically relevant pathology in very early multiple sclerosis.