Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis phenotypes significantly differ in terms of magnetic susceptibility properties of the precentral cortex

Eur Radiol. 2021 Jan 5. doi: 10.1007/s00330-020-07547-5. Online ahead of print.


Objectives: The aim of our study was to investigate whether the magnetic susceptibility varies according to the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) phenotypes based on the predominance of upper motor neuron (UMN)/lower motor neuron (LMN) impairment.

Methods: We retrospectively collected imaging and clinical data of 47 ALS patients (12 with UMN predominance (UMN-ALS), 16 with LMN predominance (LMN-ALS), and 19 with no clinically defined predominance (Np-ALS)). We further enrolled 23 healthy controls (HC) and 15 ALS mimics (ALS-Mim). These participants underwent brain 3-T magnetic resonance imaging (3-T MRI) with T1-weighted and gradient-echo multi-echo sequences. Automatic segmentation and quantitative susceptibility mapping (QSM) were performed. The skewness of the susceptibility values in the precentral cortex (SuscSKEW) was automatically computed, compared among the groups, and correlated to the clinical variables.

Results: The Kruskal-Wallis test showed significant differences in terms of SuscSKEW among groups (χ2(3) = 24.2, p < 0.001), and pairwise tests showed that SuscSKEW was higher in UMN-ALS compared to those in LMN-ALS (p < 0.001), HC (p < 0.001), Np-ALS (p = 0.012), and ALS-Mim (p < 0.001). SuscSKEW was highly correlated with the Penn UMN score (Spearman's rho 0.612, p < 0.001).

Conclusion: This study demonstrates that the clinical ALS phenotypes based on UMN/LMN sign predominance significantly differ in terms of magnetic susceptibility properties of the precentral cortex. Combined MRI-histopathology investigations are strongly encouraged to confirm whether this evidence is due to iron overload in UMN-ALS, unlike in LMN-ALS.

Key points: • Magnetic susceptibility in the precentral cortex reflects the prevalence of UMN/LMN impairment in the clinical ALS phenotypes. • The degree of UMN/LMN impairment might be well described by the automatically derived measure of SuscSKEW in the precentral cortex. • Increased SuscSKEW in the precentral cortex is more relevant in UMN-ALS patients compared to those in Np-ALS and LMN-ALS patients.

Keywords: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; Magnetic resonance imaging; Motor cortex; Motor neuron disease.