Background: Magnetization transfer ratio (MTR) histogram analysis provides a global measure of disease burden in multiple sclerosis (MS). MTR abnormalities in normal appearing brain tissue (NABT) provide quantitative information on the extent of tissue damage undetected by conventional T2-weighted (T2W) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Aims: 1) To compare the MTR histograms from NABT across a broad spectrum of relapse onset MS patients, including relapsing-remitting (RR) MS (including newly diagnosed and benign subgroups) and secondary progressive (SP) MS. 2) To determine the relationship between clinical disability and NABT MTR histograms.
Methods: 2D spin echo magnetization transfer imaging was performed on 70 RRMS and 25 SPMS patients and compared with 63 controls. MTR histograms were acquired for NABT after extracting lesions and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). T2W images were used to measure the brain parenchymal fraction (BPF) and T2 lesion load.
Results: MS patients had a disease duration ranging from 0.5 to 37 years and an Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS) score ranging from 0 to 8.5. There was a significant decrease in NABT mean MTR (+/- standard deviation) compared with controls (33.07 pu +/- 1.06 versus 34.26 pu +/- 0.47; P < 0.001) with an effect size of 2.56. The reduction in NABT mean MTR varied among patient groups from 4.9% for SPMS, 3% for all RRMS, 2.7% for early RRMS and 2.5% for benign MS, compared with controls. NABT mean MTR correlated significantly with T2 lesion load (r = -0.82) and BPF (r = 0.58). EDSS score correlated with NABT mean MTR (r = -0.43), BPF (r = -0.33) and with T2 lesion load (r = 0.59). Multivariate analysis using NABT MTR peak height, T2 lesion load and BPF combined only accounted for 38% of the variance in the EDSS (r = 0.62; P < 0.001). Disease duration accounted for an additional 14% of variance in the EDSS (r = 0.72; P < 0.001).
Conclusions: There is evidence of diffuse abnormalities in NABT in addition to global brain atrophy in relapse onset MS patients, including those with recently diagnosed RRMS and benign MS. The abnormalities are greatest in patients with the more disabling SPMS. Atrophy, NABT and lesion abnormalities are all partly correlated; the processes marked by these MR measures all contribute to disability in MS, providing complementary information relevant to the complex pathological processes that occur in MS.