Multiple sclerosis (MS) is characterised by the accumulation of permanent neurological disability secondary to irreversible tissue loss (neurodegeneration) in the brain and spinal cord. MRI measures derived from T1-weighted image analysis (i.e., black holes and atrophy) are correlated with pathological measures of irreversible tissue loss. Quantifying the degree of neurodegeneration in vivo using MRI may offer a surrogate marker with which to predict disability progression and the effect of treatment. This review evaluates the literature examining the association between MRI measures of neurodegeneration derived from T1-weighted images and disability in MS patients.
A systematic PubMed search was conducted in January 2017 to identify MRI studies in MS patients investigating the relationship between “black holes” and/or atrophy in the brain and spinal cord, and disability. Results were limited to human studies published in English in the previous 10 years.
A large number of studies have evaluated the association between the previous MRI measures and disability. These vary considerably in terms of study design, duration of follow-up, size, and phenotype of the patient population. Most, although not all, have shown that there is a significant correlation between disability and black holes in the brain, as well as atrophy of the whole brain and grey matter. The results for brain white matter atrophy are less consistently positive, whereas studies evaluating spinal cord atrophy consistently showed a significant correlation with disability. Newer ways of measuring atrophy, thanks to the development of segmentation and voxel-wise methods, have allowed us to assess the involvement of strategic regions of the CNS (e.g., thalamus) and to map the regional distribution of damage. This has resulted in better correlations between MRI measures and disability and in the identification of the critical role played by some CNS structures for MS clinical manifestations.
The evaluation of MRI measures of atrophy as predictive markers of disability in MS is a highly active area of research. At present, measurement of atrophy remains within the realm of clinical studies, but its utility in clinical practice has been recognized and barriers to its implementation are starting to be addressed.