Optic nerve atrophy and retinal nerve fibre layer thinning following optic neuritis: evidence that axonal loss is a substrate of MRI-detected atrophy

Neuroimage. 2006 May 15;31(1):286-93. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2005.11.051. Epub 2006 Jan 27.


Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) measures of brain atrophy are often considered to be a marker of axonal loss in multiple sclerosis (MS) but evidence is limited. Optic neuritis is a common manifestation of MS and results in optic nerve atrophy. Retinal nerve fibre layer (RNFL) imaging is a non-invasive way of detecting axonal loss following optic neuritis. We hypothesise that if the optic nerve atrophy that develops following optic neuritis is contributed to by axonal loss, it will correlate with thinning of the RNFL. Twenty-five patients were studied at least 1 year after a single unilateral attack of optic neuritis without recurrence, with a selection bias towards incomplete recovery. They had MR quantification of optic nerve cross-sectional area and optic nerve lesion length, as well as optical coherence tomography (OCT) measurement of mean RNFL thickness and macular volume, quantitative visual testing, and visual evoked potentials (VEPs). Fifteen controls were also studied. Significant optic nerve atrophy (mean decrease 30% versus controls), RNFL thinning (mean decrease 33% versus controls), and macular volume loss occurred in patients' affected eyes when compared with patients' unaffected eyes and healthy controls. The optic nerve atrophy was correlated with the RNFL thinning, macular volume loss, visual acuity, visual field mean deviation, and whole field VEP amplitude but not latency. These findings suggest that axonal loss contributes to optic nerve atrophy following a single attack of optic neuritis. By inference, axonal loss due to other post-inflammatory brain lesions is likely to contribute to the global MRI measure of brain atrophy in multiple sclerosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Mathematical Computing
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Fibers / pathology*
  • Optic Atrophy / diagnosis*
  • Optic Nerve / pathology
  • Optic Neuritis / diagnosis*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reference Values
  • Retina / pathology*
  • Retrograde Degeneration / diagnosis*
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Tomography, Optical Coherence
  • Vision Tests