Objective: To design and implement a methodologically rigorous study to examine the accuracy of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in a patient population clinically suspected of having multiple sclerosis (MS).
Design and setting: Three hundred three patients, who were referred to two university medical centers because of the suspicion of MS, underwent MRI of the head and double-dose, contrast-enhanced computed tomography (CT) of the head. The images were read by two observers individually and without knowledge of the clinical course or final diagnosis. Patients were followed up for at least 6 months and reevaluated clinically with subsequent neurological examination. Final diagnosis (MS or not MS) was made by a panel of neurologists on the basis of the clinical findings at presentation, those that developed during follow-up, and other diagnostic tests. The results of the imaging procedures were excluded to avoid incorporation bias. Diagnostic accuracy was assessed using receiver-operating characteristic analysis and likelihood ratios.
Results: Magnetic resonance imaging of the head was considerably more accurate than CT in diagnosing MS. The area under the receiver-operating characteristic curve for MS was 0.82 (compared with 0.52 for CT) indicating that MRI was a good but not definitively accurate test for MS. A "definite MS" reading on an MRI of the head was specific for MS (likelihood ratio, 24.9) and essentially established the diagnosis, especially in patients clinically designated as "probable MS" before testing. However, MRI of the head was negative for MS in 25% and equivocal in 40% of the patients considered to have MS by the diagnostic review committee (sensitivity, 58%).
Conclusions: Magnetic resonance imaging of the head provided assistance in the diagnosis of MS when lesions were visualized. Its ability far exceeded imaging with double-contrast CT. The sensitivity and, therefore, the predictive value of a negative MRI result for MS were, however, not sufficiently high for a normal MRI to be used to conclusively exclude the diagnosis of MS.