Background: Brainstem networks are pivotal in sensory and motor function and in recovery following experimental spinal cord injury (SCI).
Objective: To quantify neurodegeneration and its relation to clinical impairment in major brainstem pathways and nuclei in traumatic SCI.
Methods: Quantitative MRI data of 30 chronic traumatic SCI patients (15 with tetraplegia and 15 with paraplegia) and 23 controls were acquired. Patients underwent a full neurological examination. We calculated quantitative myelin-sensitive (magnetisation transfer saturation (MT) and longitudinal relaxation rate (R1)) and iron-sensitive (effective transverse relaxation rate (R2*)) maps. We constructed brainstem tissue templates using a multivariate Gaussian mixture model and assessed volume loss, myelin reductions, and iron accumulation across the brainstem pathways (e.g. corticospinal tracts (CSTs) and medial lemniscus), and nuclei (e.g. red nucleus and periaqueductal grey (PAG)). The relationship between structural changes and clinical impairment were assessed using regression analysis.
Results: Volume loss was detected in the CSTs and in the medial lemniscus. Myelin-sensitive MT and R1 were reduced in the PAG, the CSTs, the dorsal medulla and pons. No iron-sensitive changes in R2* were detected. Lower pinprick score related to more myelin reductions in the PAG, whereas lower functional independence was related to more myelin reductions in the vestibular and pontine nuclei.
Conclusion: Neurodegeneration, indicated by volume loss and myelin reductions, is evident in major brainstem pathways and nuclei following traumatic SCI; the magnitude of these changes relating to clinical impairment. Thus, quantitative MRI protocols offer new targets, which may be used as neuroimaging biomarkers in treatment trials.
Keywords: Atrophy; Brain stem; Periaqueductal grey; Pyramidal tracts; Quantitative MRI; Red nucleus; Spinal cord injuries; Structural MRI.