A matter of atrophy: differential impact of brain and spine damage on disability worsening in multiple sclerosis

J Neurol. 2021 Dec;268(12):4698-4706. doi: 10.1007/s00415-021-10576-9. Epub 2021 May 3.


As atrophy represents the most relevant driver of progression in multiple sclerosis (MS), we investigated the impact of different patterns of brain and spinal cord atrophy on disability worsening in MS. We acquired clinical and MRI data from 90 patients with relapsing-remitting MS and 24 healthy controls (HC). Clinical progression at follow-up (mean 3.7 years) was defined according to the Expanded Disability Status Scale-Plus. Brain and spinal cord volumes were computed on MRI brain scans. After normalizing each participants' brain and spine volume to the mean of the HC, z-score cut-offs were applied to separate pathologically atrophic from normal brain and spine volumes (accepting a 2.5% error probability). Accordingly, MS patients were classified into four groups (Group I: no brain or spinal cord atrophy N = 40, Group II: brain atrophy/no spinal cord atrophy N = 11, Group III: no brain atrophy/ spinal cord atrophy N = 32, Group IV: both brain and spinal cord atrophy N = 7). All patients' groups showed significantly lower brain volume than HC (p < 0.0001). Group III and IV showed lower spine volume than HC (p < 0.0001 for both). Higher brain lesion load was identified in Group II (p = 0.049) and Group IV (p = 0.023) vs Group I, and in Group IV (p = 0.048) vs Group III. Spinal cord atrophy (OR = 3.75, p = 0.018) and brain + spinal cord atrophy (OR = 5.71, p = 0.046) were significant predictors of disability progression. The presence of concomitant brain and spinal cord atrophy is the strongest correlate of progression over time. Isolated spinal cord atrophy exerts a similar effect, confirming the leading role of spinal cord atrophy in the determination of motor disability.

Keywords: Brain atrophy; Disability worsening; Multiple sclerosis; Spinal cord atrophy.

MeSH terms

  • Atrophy / pathology
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / pathology
  • Disability Evaluation
  • Disabled Persons*
  • Humans
  • Motor Disorders* / pathology
  • Multiple Sclerosis* / complications
  • Multiple Sclerosis* / diagnostic imaging
  • Multiple Sclerosis* / pathology