Background: Deterioration of fine motor control of the tongue is common in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and has a major impact on quality of life. However, the underlying neuronal substrate is largely unknown. Here, we aimed to explore the association of tongue motor dysfunction in MS patients with overall clinical disability and structural brain damage.
Methods: We employed a force transducer based quantitative-motor system (Q-Motor) to objectively assess tongue function in 33 patients with MS. The variability of tongue force output (TFV) and the mean applied tongue force (TF) were measured during an isometric tongue protrusion task. Twenty-three age and gender matched healthy volunteers served as controls. Correlation analyses of motor performance in MS patients with individual disease burden as expressed by the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS) and with microstructural brain damage as measured by the fractional anisotropy (FA) on Diffusion Tensor Imaging were performed.
Results: MS patients showed significantly increased TFV and decreased TF compared to controls (p < 0.02). TFV but not TF was correlated with the EDSS (p < 0.04). TFV was inversely correlated with FA in the bilateral posterior limb of the internal capsule expanding to the brain stem (p < 0.001), a region critical to tongue function. TF showed a weaker, positive and unilateral correlation with FA in the same region (p < 0.001).
Conclusions: Changes in TFV were more robust and correlated better with disease phenotype and FA changes than TF. TFV might serve as an objective and non-invasive outcome measure to augment the quantitative assessment of motor dysfunction in MS.