Brainstem lesions are associated with diffuse spinal cord involvement in early multiple sclerosis

BMC Neurol. 2022 Jul 19;22(1):270. doi: 10.1186/s12883-022-02778-z.


Background: Early infratentorial and focal spinal cord lesions on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are associated with a higher risk of long-term disability in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). The role of diffuse spinal cord lesions remains less understood. The purpose of this study was to evaluate focal and especially diffuse spinal cord lesions in patients with early relapsing-remitting MS and their association with intracranial lesion topography, global and regional brain volume, and spinal cord volume.

Methods: We investigated 58 MS patients with short disease duration (< 5 years) from a large academic MS center and 58 healthy controls matched for age and sex. Brain, spinal cord, and intracranial lesion volumes were compared among patients with- and without diffuse spinal cord lesions and controls. Binary logistic regression models were used to analyse the association between the volume and topology of intracranial lesions and the presence of focal and diffuse spinal cord lesions.

Results: We found spinal cord involvement in 75% of the patients (43/58), including diffuse changes in 41.4% (24/58). Patients with diffuse spinal cord changes exhibited higher volumes of brainstem lesion volume (p = 0.008). The presence of at least one brainstem lesion was associated with a higher probability of the presence of diffuse spinal cord lesions (odds ratio 47.1; 95% confidence interval 6.9-321.6 p < 0.001) as opposed to focal spinal cord lesions (odds ratio 0.22; p = 0.320). Patients with diffuse spinal cord lesions had a lower thalamus volume compared to patients without diffuse spinal cord lesions (p = 0.007) or healthy controls (p = 0.002).

Conclusions: Diffuse spinal cord lesions are associated with the presence of brainstem lesions and with a lower volume of the thalamus. This association was not found in patients with focal spinal cord lesions. If confirmed, thalamic atrophy in patients with diffuse lesions could increase our knowledge on the worse prognosis in patients with infratentorial and SC lesions.

Keywords: Focal and diffuse lesions, thalamus; Infratentorial lesions; Multiple sclerosis; Spinal cord.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain Stem / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Stem / pathology
  • Disability Evaluation
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Multiple Sclerosis* / diagnostic imaging
  • Multiple Sclerosis* / pathology
  • Multiple Sclerosis, Relapsing-Remitting* / diagnostic imaging
  • Multiple Sclerosis, Relapsing-Remitting* / pathology
  • Spinal Cord / diagnostic imaging
  • Spinal Cord / pathology
  • Spinal Cord Diseases* / pathology