Gadolinium (Gd)-based contrast agents are widely used to assess disease activity and treatment response by MRI in multiple sclerosis (MS). There is, however, increasing concern about their safety as their repeated administration may lead to brain parenchymal accumulation, while preclinical models suggest that they induce mitochondrial toxicity and neuronal cell death. Moreover, recent reports have demonstrated that three-dimensional (3D) T2-weighted Fluid-Attenuated-Inversion-Recovery (FLAIR) is highly sensitive in detecting new or enlarging MS lesions.
To explore whether the presence of contrast enhancing lesions (CEL) based on Gd injection is more sensitive in detecting lesional activity in clinically stable MS patients in comparison to the analysis of new or enlarging MS lesions by 3D FLAIR.
MS patients being part of the observational, multicenter Swiss Multiple Sclerosis Cohort Study (SMSC) with contrast enhanced T1-weighted (T1w) images were included. Clinical stability was defined as no relapse and no Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS) increase during at least twelve months prior to MRI. Presence of CEL was assessed on contrast enhanced T1w images. Presence of new or enlarging T2w lesions was assessed manually on 3D FLAIR in an independent analysis by a different investigator in clinically stable MS patients presenting with CEL.
3930 MRI scans (3.0 Tesla n=1497 (38%)) in 1057 participants (685 women, median age 42.0 years, 941 with relapsing MS, 116 with progressive MS, median EDSS 2.0 (range 1.5-3.5), median disease duration 7.4 years) were included.
Of 2620 MRI scans (66.7%) acquired in clinically stable conditions 46 (1.8%) demonstrated CEL. In all of these, new or enlarging T2w lesions were detectable by 3D FLAIR when a previous MRI was available for comparison (previous MRI available in 29/46; median number of new or enlarging T2w lesions: 3 (range 1-41, total number 176); median number of CEL: 1 (range 1-4, total number 47)).
In our large cohort from clinical practice, the assessment of new or enlarging lesions by 3D FLAIR was equally sensitive as the quantification of CEL to detect disease activity in clinically stable MS patients, challenging current practice of the use of Gd-enhanced MRI for monitoring of MS in clinical routine.