Background: In multiple sclerosis (MS), brain atrophy depicted by magnetic resonance imaging reflects overall tissue loss, including axonal loss.
Objective: To determine the course of atrophy by studying the rate of development of brain atrophy in patients who have different subtypes of MS.
Methods: Eighty-three patients with MS (42 with relapsing-remitting, 21 with secondary progressive, and 20 with primary progressive) were studied longitudinally, with an interval of 2 to 4 years. Magnetic resonance imaging included T1- and T2-weighted images to obtain 2 brain volume measurements: (1) the parenchymal fraction as a marker of global brain atrophy and (2) the ventricular fraction as a marker of central atrophy. The annualized rate of global and central brain atrophy was compared between those with different subtypes of MS and related to clinical characteristics, including sex, age, disease duration, and disability.
Results: There was a significant decrease of the parenchymal fraction (-0.7% per year; SEM, 0.11% per year) and a significant increase of ventricular fraction (3.7% per year; SEM, 0.54% per year) in the total group. Significant tissue loss was also seen in all 3 subtypes of MS; the decrease in parenchymal fraction was not different between subtypes, whereas the increase in ventricular fraction tended to be larger in patients with secondary progressive MS compared with patients with primary progressive MS. Marginal associations were found between clinical determinants and the rate of brain atrophy. Annualized increase in the ventricular fraction was correlated with age (r = -0.26) and duration of symptoms (r = -0.22): younger patients (mainly patients with relapsing-remitting MS who have a limited disability) displayed a larger increase in ventricular fraction compared with older patients.
Conclusions: The rate of development of brain atrophy is largely independent of the course of the disease and other clinical characteristics. The relentless loss of tissue occurring in MS is not restricted to later (progressive) phases of the disease, thereby stressing the need for early neuroprotective treatment in MS.