Optic Nerve MRI T2-Hyperintensity: A Nonspecific Marker of Optic Nerve Damage

J Neuroophthalmol. 2024 Mar 1;44(1):22-29. doi: 10.1097/WNO.0000000000002017. Epub 2023 Nov 21.


Background: MRI abnormalities are common in optic neuropathies, especially on dedicated orbital imaging. In acute optic neuritis, optic nerve T2-hyperintensity associated with optic nerve contrast enhancement is the typical imaging finding. In chronic optic neuropathies, optic nerve T2-hyperintensity and atrophy are regularly seen. Isolated optic nerve T2-hyperintensity is often erroneously presumed to reflect optic neuritis, frequently prompting unnecessary investigations and neuro-ophthalmology consultations. Our goal was to determine the significance of optic nerve/chiasm T2-hyperintensity and/or atrophy on MRI.

Methods: Retrospective study of consecutive patients who underwent brain/orbital MRI with/without contrast at our institution between July 1, 2019, and June 6, 2022. Patients with optic nerve/chiasm T2-hyperintensity and/or atrophy were included. Medical records were reviewed to determine the etiology of the T2-hyperintensity and/or atrophy.

Results: Four hundred seventy-seven patients (698 eyes) were included [mean age 52 years (SD ±18 years); 57% women]. Of the 364 of 698 eyes with optic nerve/chiasm T2-hyperintensity without atrophy, the causes were compressive (104), inflammatory (103), multifactorial (49), glaucoma (21), normal (19), and other (68); of the 219 of 698 eyes with optic nerve/chiasm T2-hyperintensity and atrophy, the causes were compressive (57), multifactorial (40), inflammatory (38), glaucoma (33), normal (7), and other (44); of the 115 of 698 eyes with optic nerve/chiasm atrophy without T2-hyperintensity, the causes were glaucoma (34), multifactorial (21), inflammatory (13), compressive (11), normal (10), and other (26). Thirty-six eyes with optic nerve/chiasm T2-hyperintensity or atrophy did not have evidence of optic neuropathy or retinopathy on ophthalmologic examination, and 17 eyes had clinical evidence of severe retinopathy without primary optic neuropathy.

Conclusions: Optic nerve T2-hyperintensity or atrophy can be found with any cause of optic neuropathy and with severe chronic retinopathy. These MRI findings should not automatically prompt optic neuritis diagnosis, workup, and treatment, and caution is advised regarding their use in the diagnostic criteria for multiple sclerosis. Cases of incidentally found MRI optic nerve T2-hyperintensity and/or atrophy without a known underlying optic neuropathy or severe retinopathy are rare. Such patients should receive an ophthalmologic examination before further investigations.

MeSH terms

  • Atrophy / complications
  • Atrophy / pathology
  • Female
  • Glaucoma* / complications
  • Glaucoma* / pathology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Optic Atrophy* / complications
  • Optic Atrophy* / diagnosis
  • Optic Nerve / diagnostic imaging
  • Optic Nerve / pathology
  • Optic Nerve Diseases* / pathology
  • Optic Nerve Injuries* / complications
  • Optic Neuritis* / etiology
  • Retinal Diseases* / complications
  • Retrospective Studies