Objective: To assess axonal damage and its contribution to disability at different stages of multiple sclerosis (MS).
Background: Recent in vivo imaging and in situ pathologic studies have demonstrated that substantial axonal damage accompanies the inflammatory lesions of MS. However, the relation of axonal damage to the duration of MS and its contribution to disability at different stages of the disease remain poorly defined.
Design: We performed proton magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging in 88 patients with a wide range of clinical disability and disease duration to measure N-acetylaspartate (NAA, an index of axonal integrity) relative to creatine (Cr) in a large central brain volume that included mostly normal-appearing white matter on magnetic resonance imaging.
Results: We observed that the NAA/Cr values were abnormally low in the early stages of MS, even before significant disability (measured using the Expanded Disability Status Scale [EDSS]) was evident clinically, and declined more rapidly with respect to EDSS at lower than at higher EDSS scores (P<.001). The correlation of NAA/Cr values with EDSS score was significantly (P<.03) stronger in patients with mild disability (EDSS score <5, Spearman rank order correlation = -0.54, P<.001) than in patients with more severe disability (EDSS score >/=5, Spearman rank order correlation = -0.1, P<.9). When similar analyses were performed in patients with MS grouped for duration of disease, the subgroup with early disease duration (<5 years) also showed central brain NAA/Cr resonance intensity ratios significantly lower than healthy controls (P<.001).
Conclusion: Cerebral axonal damage begins and contributes to disability from the earliest stages of the disease.