Assessing structure and function of the afferent visual pathway in multiple sclerosis and associated optic neuritis

J Neurol. 2009 Mar;256(3):305-19. doi: 10.1007/s00415-009-0123-z. Epub 2009 Mar 18.


The afferent visual pathway is commonly affected in MS. Assessment of the afferent visual pathway using clinical, imaging and electrophysiological methods not only provides insights into the pathophysiology of MS, but also provides a method of investigating potential therapeutic measures in MS. This review summarises the various assessment methods, in particular imaging techniques of the visual pathway. Retinal nerve fibre layer (RNFL) thickness is usually reduced following an episode of optic neuritis. Techniques such as optical coherence tomography, scanning laser polarimetry, and confocal scanning laser ophthalmoscopy are used to quantify RNFL thickness. MRI of the optic nerve is not routinely used in the diagnosis of MS or optic neuritis, but is valuable in atypical cases and in research. T2- weighted images of the optic nerve usually show the hyperintense lesion in optic neuritis and gadolinium enhancement is seen in the acute attack. Quantifying atrophy of the optic nerve using MRI gives an indication of the degree of axonal loss. Magnetization transfer ratio (MTR) of the optic nerve provides an indication of myelination. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) of the optic nerve and optic radiation provide information about the integrity of the visual white matter tracts. Functional MRI following visual stimulation is used to assess the contribution of cortical reorganisation to functional recovery following optic neuritis. Investigations including logMAR visual acuity, Sloan contrast acuity, Farnsworth- Munsell 100-hue colour vision tests and Humphrey perimetry provide detailed quantitative information on different aspects of visual function. Visual evoked potentials identify conduction block or delay reflecting demyelination. These collective investigative methods have advanced knowledge of pathophysiological mechanisms in MS and optic neuritis. Relevant ongoing studies and future directions are discussed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / pathology
  • Afferent Pathways / physiopathology
  • Atrophy
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual
  • Humans
  • Multiple Sclerosis / diagnosis
  • Multiple Sclerosis / pathology*
  • Multiple Sclerosis / physiopathology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Optic Nerve / pathology
  • Optic Neuritis / diagnosis
  • Optic Neuritis / pathology*
  • Optic Neuritis / physiopathology*
  • Retina / pathology
  • Visual Pathways / pathology*
  • Visual Pathways / physiopathology*