Disruption of brainstem monoaminergic fibre tracts in multiple sclerosis as a putative mechanism for cognitive fatigue: a fixel-based analysis

Neuroimage Clin. 2021;30:102587. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2021.102587. Epub 2021 Feb 12.


In multiple sclerosis (MS), monoaminergic systems are altered as a result of both inflammation-dependent reduced synthesis and direct structural damage. Aberrant monoaminergic neurotransmission is increasingly considered a major contributor to fatigue pathophysiology. In this study, we aimed to compare the integrity of the monoaminergic white matter fibre tracts projecting from brainstem nuclei in a group of patients with MS (n = 68) and healthy controls (n = 34), and to investigate its association with fatigue. Fibre tracts integrity was assessed with the novel fixel-based analysis that simultaneously estimates axonal density, by means of 'fibre density', and white matter atrophy, by means of fibre 'cross section'. We focused on ventral tegmental area, locus coeruleus, and raphe nuclei as the main source of dopaminergic, noradrenergic, and serotoninergic fibres within the brainstem, respectively. Fourteen tracts of interest projecting from these brainstem nuclei were reconstructed using diffusion tractography, and compared by means of the product of fibre-density and cross-section (FDC). Finally, correlations of monoaminergic axonal damage with the modified fatigue impact scale scores were evaluated in MS. Fixel-based analysis revealed significant axonal damage - as measured by FDC reduction - within selective monoaminergic fibre-tracts projecting from brainstem nuclei in MS patients, in comparison to healthy controls; particularly within the dopaminergic-mesolimbic pathway, the noradrenergic-projections to prefrontal cortex, and serotoninergic-projections to cerebellum. Moreover, we observed significant correlations between severity of cognitive fatigue and axonal damage within the mesocorticolimbic tracts projecting from ventral tegmental area, as well as within the locus coeruleus projections to prefrontal cortex, suggesting a potential contribution of dopaminergic and noradrenergic pathways to central fatigue in MS. Our findings support the hypothesis that axonal damage along monoaminergic pathways contributes to the reduction/dysfunction of monoamines in MS and add new information on the mechanisms by which monoaminergic systems contribute to MS pathogenesis and fatigue. This supports the need for further research into monoamines as therapeutic targets aiming to combat and alleviate fatigue in MS.

Keywords: Fatigue; Fixel-based analysis; Monoaminergic system; Multiple sclerosis; Tractography.

MeSH terms

  • Brain Stem / diagnostic imaging
  • Cognition
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Humans
  • Multiple Sclerosis*
  • White Matter*