Recent advances in susceptibility MRI have dramatically improved the visualization of deep gray matter brain regions and the quantification of their magnetic properties in vivo, providing a novel tool to study the poorly understood iron homeostasis in the human brain. In this study, we used an advanced combination of the recent quantitative susceptibility mapping technique with dedicated analysis methods to study intra-thalamic tissue alterations in patients with clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) and multiple sclerosis (MS). Thalamic pathology is one of the earliest hallmarks of MS and has been shown to correlate with cognitive dysfunction and fatigue, but the mechanisms underlying the thalamic pathology are poorly understood. We enrolled a total of 120 patients, 40 with CIS, 40 with Relapsing Remitting MS (RRMS), and 40 with Secondary Progressive MS (SPMS). For each of the three patient groups, we recruited 40 controls, group matched for age- and sex (120 total). We acquired quantitative susceptibility maps using a single-echo gradient echo MRI pulse sequence at 3 T. Group differences were studied by voxel-based analysis as well as with a custom thalamus atlas. We used threshold-free cluster enhancement (TFCE) and multiple regression analyses, respectively. We found significantly reduced magnetic susceptibility compared to controls in focal thalamic subregions of patients with RRMS (whole thalamus excluding the pulvinar nucleus) and SPMS (primarily pulvinar nucleus), but not in patients with CIS. Susceptibility reduction was significantly associated with disease duration in the pulvinar, the left lateral nuclear region, and the global thalamus. Susceptibility reduction indicates a decrease in tissue iron concentration suggesting an involvement of chronic microglia activation in the depletion of iron from oligodendrocytes in this central and integrative brain region. Not necessarily specific to MS, inflammation-mediated iron release may lead to a vicious circle that reduces the protection of axons and neuronal repair.
Keywords: Iron; Multiple sclerosis; QSM; Quantitative susceptibility mapping; Thalamus.
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