Three dimensional MRI estimates of brain and spinal cord atrophy in multiple sclerosis

J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1999 Mar;66(3):323-30. doi: 10.1136/jnnp.66.3.323.


Objective: The association between brain atrophy and permanent functional deficits in multiple sclerosis and the temporal relation between atrophy and the clinical disease course have seldom been investigated. This study aims to determine the amount of infratentorial and supratentorial atrophy in patients by comparison with healthy controls, to establish the relation between atrophy and disability, and to derive the rates of volume loss in individual patients from their estimated disease durations.

Methods: Three dimensional acquired MRI was performed on 20 relapsing-remitting and 20 secondary progressive multiple sclerosis patients and 10 control subjects. Volume data on infratentorial and supratentorial structures were obtained using the Cavalieri method of modern design stereology in combination with point counting. Corpus callosal sectional area and "T2 lesion load" were also determined.

Results: Significantly reduced infratentorial and cerebral white matter volumes and corpus callosal sectional areas occurred in all patients compared with controls (p=0.0001-0.004). Mean estimates of volume loss in the cohort were -21%, -19%, -46%, and -12% for the brain stem, cerebellum, upper cervical cord and white matter, respectively, and -21% for the corpus callosal sectional area. Analysis of the amount of atrophy (volume differences between patients and controls) showed that upper cervical cord and cerebral white matter atrophy correlated with the expanded disability status scale (r=-0.37 and -0.37, p=0.018-0.023) and the Scripps neurologic rating scale scores (r=+0.49 and +0.43, p=0.002-0.007). There was no relation between estimated volume loss in the supratentorial and infratentorial compartments. The "T2 lesion load" was associated with ventricular enlargement and corpus callosal atrophy (r=+0.50 and -0.55, p=0.0003-0.0012). Infratentorial atrophy rates correlated with baseline exacerbation rates (r=-0.50 to -0.48, p=0.0016-0.0021) and were higher in relapsing-remitting than secondary progressive patients (p=0.009-0.02).

Conclusions: Significant cerebral and spinal cord volume reductions occurred in both patient subgroups compared with controls. Functional correlates were found with estimated volume loss in the upper cervical cord and cerebral white matter. Particularly for infratentorial structures, estimated rates of atrophy were higher in relapsing-remitting than secondary progressive patients, suggesting that atrophy, perhaps mainly due to tract degeneration, begins early in multiple sclerosis and may relate predominantly to acute inflammatory events, with or without other gradual non-inflammatory processes later in the disease course.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Sclerosis / pathology*
  • Spinal Cord / pathology*