Brain and retinal atrophy in African-Americans versus Caucasian-Americans with multiple sclerosis: a longitudinal study

Brain. 2018 Nov 1;141(11):3115-3129. doi: 10.1093/brain/awy245.


On average, African Americans with multiple sclerosis demonstrate higher inflammatory disease activity, faster disability accumulation, greater visual dysfunction, more pronounced brain tissue damage and higher lesion volume loads compared to Caucasian Americans with multiple sclerosis. Neurodegeneration is an important component of multiple sclerosis, which in part accounts for the clinical heterogeneity of the disease. Brain atrophy appears to be widespread, although it is becoming increasingly recognized that regional substructure atrophy may be of greater clinical relevance. Patient race (within the limitations of self-identified ancestry) is regarded as an important contributing factor. However, there is a paucity of studies examining differences in neurodegeneration and brain substructure volumes over time in African Americans relative to Caucasian American patients. Optical coherence tomography is a non-invasive and reliable tool for measuring structural retinal changes. Recent studies support its utility for tracking neurodegeneration and disease progression in vivo in multiple sclerosis. Relative to Caucasian Americans, African American patients have been found to have greater retinal structural injury in the inner retinal layers. Increased thickness of the inner nuclear layer and the presence of microcystoid macular pathology at baseline predict clinical and radiological inflammatory activity, although whether race plays a role in these changes has not been investigated. Similarly, assessment of outer retinal changes according to race in multiple sclerosis remains incompletely characterized. Twenty-two African Americans and 60 matched Caucasian Americans with multiple sclerosis were evaluated with brain MRI, and 116 African Americans and 116 matched Caucasian Americans with multiple sclerosis were monitored with optical coherence tomography over a mean duration of 4.5 years. Mixed-effects linear regression models were used in statistical analyses. Grey matter (-0.9%/year versus -0.5%: P =0.02), white matter (-0.7%/year versus -0.3%: P =0.04) and nuclear thalamic (-1.5%/year versus -0.7%/year: P =0.02) atrophy rates were approximately twice as fast in African Americans. African Americans also exhibited higher proportions of microcystoid macular pathology (12.1% versus 0.9%, P =0.001). Retinal nerve fibre layer (-1.1% versus -0.8%: P =0.02) and ganglion cell+ inner plexiform layer (-0.7%/year versus -0.4%/year: P =0.01) atrophy rates were faster in African versus Caucasian Americans. African Americans on average exhibited more rapid neurodegeneration than Caucasian Americans and had significantly faster brain and retinal tissue loss. These results corroborate the more rapid clinical progression reported to occur, in general, in African Americans with multiple sclerosis and support the need for future studies involving African Americans in order to identify individual differences in treatment responses in multiple sclerosis.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Atrophy / complications
  • Atrophy / diagnostic imaging
  • Atrophy / ethnology
  • Black or African American*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Case-Control Studies*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Sclerosis* / diagnostic imaging
  • Multiple Sclerosis* / ethnology
  • Multiple Sclerosis* / physiopathology
  • Retina / diagnostic imaging
  • Retina / pathology*
  • Tomography, Optical Coherence
  • White People*