Brain abnormalities in neuromyelitis optica

Arch Neurol. 2006 Mar;63(3):390-6. doi: 10.1001/archneur.63.3.390.


Background: Neuromyelitis optica (NMO) is a severe demyelinating disease defined principally by its tendency to selectively affect optic nerves and the spinal cord causing recurrent attacks of blindness and paralysis. Contemporary diagnostic criteria require absence of clinical disease outside the optic nerve or spinal cord. We have, however, frequently encountered patients with a well-established diagnosis of NMO in whom either asymptomatic or symptomatic brain lesions develop suggesting that the diagnostic criteria for NMO should be revised.

Objective: To describe the magnetic resonance image (MRI) brain findings in NMO.

Design: Observational, retrospective case series. Patients We ascertained patients through a clinical biospecimens database of individuals with definite or suspected NMO. We included patients who (1) satisfied the 1999 criteria of Wingerchuk et al for NMO except for the absolute criterion of lacking symptoms beyond the optic nerve and spinal cord and the supportive criterion of having a normal brain MRI at onset; (2) had MRI evidence of a spinal cord lesion extending 3 vertebral segments or more (the most specific nonserological feature to differentiate NMO from MS); and (3) were evaluated neurologically and by brain MRI at the Mayo Clinic.

Main outcome measures: Magnetic resonance images were classified as normal or as abnormal with either nonspecific, multiple sclerosis-like or atypical abnormalities. We evaluated whether brain lesions were symptomatic and analyzed the neuropathologic features of a single brain biopsy specimen.

Results: Sixty patients (53 women [88%]) fulfilled these inclusion criteria. The mean +/- SD age at onset was 37.2 +/- 18.4 years and the mean +/- SD duration of follow-up was 6.0 +/- 5.6 years. Neuromyelitis optica-IgG was detected in 41 patients (68%). Brain MRI lesions were detected in 36 patients (60%). Most were nonspecific, but 6 patients (10%) had multiple sclerosis-like lesions, usually asymptomatic. Another 5 patients (8%), mostly children, had diencephalic, brainstem or cerebral lesions, atypical for multiple sclerosis. When present, symptoms of brain involvement were subtle, except in 1 patient who was comatose and had large cerebral lesions.

Conclusions: Asymptomatic brain lesions are common in NMO, and symptomatic brain lesions do not exclude the diagnosis of NMO. These observations justify revision of diagnostic criteria for NMO to allow for brain involvement.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Disability Evaluation
  • Disease Progression
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin G / blood
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Myelin Sheath / pathology
  • Neuromyelitis Optica / blood
  • Neuromyelitis Optica / pathology*
  • Observation
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Spinal Cord / pathology


  • Immunoglobulin G