7 T imaging reveals a gradient in spinal cord lesion distribution in multiple sclerosis

Brain. 2020 Oct 1;143(10):2973-2987. doi: 10.1093/brain/awaa249.


We used 7 T MRI to: (i) characterize the grey and white matter pathology in the cervical spinal cord of patients with early relapsing-remitting and secondary progressive multiple sclerosis; (ii) assess the spinal cord lesion spatial distribution and the hypothesis of an outside-in pathological process possibly driven by CSF-mediated immune cytotoxic factors; and (iii) evaluate the association of spinal cord pathology with brain burden and its contribution to neurological disability. We prospectively recruited 20 relapsing-remitting, 15 secondary progressive multiple sclerosis participants and 11 age-matched healthy control subjects to undergo 7 T imaging of the cervical spinal cord and brain as well as conventional 3 T brain acquisition. Cervical spinal cord imaging at 7 T was used to segment grey and white matter, including lesions therein. Brain imaging at 7 T was used to segment cortical and white matter lesions and 3 T imaging for cortical thickness estimation. Cervical spinal cord lesions were mapped voxel-wise as a function of distance from the inner central canal CSF pool to the outer subpial surface. Similarly, brain white matter lesions were mapped voxel-wise as a function of distance from the ventricular system. Subjects with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis showed a greater predominance of spinal cord lesions nearer the outer subpial surface compared to secondary progressive cases. Inversely, secondary progressive participants presented with more centrally located lesions. Within the brain, there was a strong gradient of lesion formation nearest the ventricular system that was most evident in participants with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. Lesion fractions within the spinal cord grey and white matter were related to the lesion fraction in cerebral white matter. Cortical thinning was the primary determinant of the Expanded Disability Status Scale, white matter lesion fractions in the spinal cord and brain of the 9-Hole Peg Test and cortical thickness and spinal cord grey matter cross-sectional area of the Timed 25-Foot Walk. Spinal cord lesions were localized nearest the subpial surfaces for those with relapsing-remitting and the central canal CSF surface in progressive disease, possibly implying CSF-mediated pathogenic mechanisms in lesion development that may differ between multiple sclerosis subtypes. These findings show that spinal cord lesions involve both grey and white matter from the early multiple sclerosis stages and occur mostly independent from brain pathology. Despite the prevalence of cervical spinal cord lesions and atrophy, brain pathology seems more strongly related to physical disability as measured by the Expanded Disability Status Scale.

Keywords: biomarkers; demyelination; imaging; multiple sclerosis; white matter lesions.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cervical Cord / diagnostic imaging*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / trends*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Sclerosis, Chronic Progressive / diagnostic imaging*
  • Multiple Sclerosis, Chronic Progressive / epidemiology
  • Multiple Sclerosis, Relapsing-Remitting / diagnostic imaging*
  • Multiple Sclerosis, Relapsing-Remitting / epidemiology