Magnetic resonance spectroscopy reveals mitochondrial dysfunction in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

Brain. 2020 Dec 1;143(12):3603-3618. doi: 10.1093/brain/awaa340.


Mitochondrial dysfunction is postulated to be central to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) pathophysiology. Evidence comes primarily from disease models and conclusive data to support bioenergetic dysfunction in vivo in patients is currently lacking. This study is the first to assess mitochondrial dysfunction in brain and muscle in individuals living with ALS using 31P-magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), the modality of choice to assess energy metabolism in vivo. We recruited 20 patients and 10 healthy age and gender-matched control subjects in this cross-sectional clinico-radiological study. 31P-MRS was acquired from cerebral motor regions and from tibialis anterior during rest and exercise. Bioenergetic parameter estimates were derived including: ATP, phosphocreatine, inorganic phosphate, adenosine diphosphate, Gibbs free energy of ATP hydrolysis (ΔGATP), phosphomonoesters, phosphodiesters, pH, free magnesium concentration, and muscle dynamic recovery constants. Linear regression was used to test for associations between brain data and clinical parameters (revised amyotrophic functional rating scale, slow vital capacity, and upper motor neuron score) and between muscle data and clinico-neurophysiological measures (motor unit number and size indices, force of contraction, and speed of walking). Evidence for primary dysfunction of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation was detected in the brainstem where ΔGATP and phosphocreatine were reduced. Alterations were also detected in skeletal muscle in patients where resting inorganic phosphate, pH, and phosphomonoesters were increased, whereas resting ΔGATP, magnesium, and dynamic phosphocreatine to inorganic phosphate recovery were decreased. Phosphocreatine in brainstem correlated with respiratory dysfunction and disability; in muscle, energy metabolites correlated with motor unit number index, muscle power, and speed of walking. This study provides in vivo evidence for bioenergetic dysfunction in ALS in brain and skeletal muscle, which appears clinically and electrophysiologically relevant. 31P-MRS represents a promising technique to assess the pathophysiology of mitochondrial function in vivo in ALS and a potential tool for future clinical trials targeting bioenergetic dysfunction.

Keywords: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; biomarkers; denervation; imaging; neuromuscular disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Triphosphate / metabolism
  • Aged
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / metabolism
  • Brain Chemistry
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mitochondria / chemistry*
  • Mitochondrial Diseases / metabolism*
  • Motor Neurons / metabolism
  • Motor Neurons / pathology
  • Muscle Contraction
  • Muscle Strength
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology
  • Oxidative Phosphorylation
  • Phosphocreatine / metabolism
  • Walking


  • Phosphocreatine
  • Adenosine Triphosphate