Grey matter, matters

How big is your grey matter iceberg? 

As you are aware, MS is an iceberg, with most of the MS disease activity and resultant damage being hidden. The study below expands the concept of the MS iceberg to the cerebral cortex or grey matter. Most lesions (~80%) found at post-mortem in the grey matter are not detected using specialised MR imaging. Please note that post-mortem MRI imaging in more standardised than that which happens in clinical practice and I suspect even more lesions will be missed in real-life. 

Is this study important? You bet. We know that these grey matter lesions are associated with cognitive impairment, loss of brain volume and in particular progressive grey matter atrophy and are associated with poor longterm outcome and reduced quality of life. 

Do you want to know what your true MS disease burden is? Based on this data and other studies it looks as if MRI is not the best way of doing this. I suspect a better marker will be ‘deep phenotyping’, i.e. interrogating the function of your nervous system using stress tests to see how you perform. Knowing you have cognitive impairments, for example, slow cognitive reaction times, difficulty with concentration and attention, poor memory or other specific deficits may be more meaningful to you. Or not? I say ‘or not’ as not all pwMS want to know that have cognitive impairment; they argue if nothing can be done about it is best to ignore it. This is called the ‘ostrich syndrome’.

Knowing you have cognitive deficits will allow you to take specific actions to address the problem and to potentially make important real-life decisions about your future. It also allows your HCP to take action to address some medical issues that are linked to cognitive impairment, i.e. poor adherence to treatments, physical accidents and comorbid depression and anxiety to name a few. One could argue that pwMS who have cognitive impairment should be put on a high-risk register for more proactive management and care.

It is clear that the burden of MS is not only physical but cognitive as well. This is another reason to diagnose, treat and manage MS effectively and as early as possible to prevent end-organ damage and preserve your grey matter. Can I please remind you that no all DMTs are made equal when it comes to preserving brain volume or grey matter.

This post reminds me of an infographic I put together about 5 years ago called ‘Grey Matter, Matters’, which I used to support a campaign I started to redefine MS as a ‘preventable dementia’.

Do you agree with me?

Piet M Bouman et al. Histopathology-validated recommendations for cortical lesion imaging in multiple sclerosis. Brain. 2020 Aug 21;awaa233. doi: 10.1093/brain/awaa233.

Cortical demyelinating lesions are clinically important in multiple sclerosis, but notoriously difficult to visualize with MRI. At clinical field strengths, double inversion recovery MRI is most sensitive, but still only detects 18% of all histopathologically validated cortical lesions. More recently, phase-sensitive inversion recovery was suggested to have a higher sensitivity than double inversion recovery, although this claim was not histopathologically validated. Therefore, this retrospective study aimed to provide clarity on this matter by identifying which MRI sequence best detects histopathologically-validated cortical lesions at clinical field strength, by comparing sensitivity and specificity of the thus far most commonly used MRI sequences, which are T2, fluid-attenuated inversion recovery (FLAIR), double inversion recovery and phase-sensitive inversion recovery. Post-mortem MRI was performed on non-fixed coronal hemispheric brain slices of 23 patients with progressive multiple sclerosis directly after autopsy, at 3 T, using T1 and proton-density/T2-weighted, as well as FLAIR, double inversion recovery and phase-sensitive inversion recovery sequences. A total of 93 cortical tissue blocks were sampled from these slices. Blinded to histopathology, all MRI sequences were consensus scored for cortical lesions. Subsequently, tissue samples were stained for proteolipid protein (myelin) and scored for cortical lesion types I-IV (mixed grey matter/white matter, intracortical, subpial and cortex-spanning lesions, respectively). MRI scores were compared to histopathological scores to calculate sensitivity and specificity per sequence. Next, a retrospective (unblinded) scoring was performed to explore maximum scoring potential per sequence. Histopathologically, 224 cortical lesions were detected, of which the majority were subpial. In a mixed model, sensitivity of T1, proton-density/T2, FLAIR, double inversion recovery and phase-sensitive inversion recovery was 8.9%, 5.4%, 5.4%, 22.8% and 23.7%, respectively (20, 12, 12, 51 and 53 cortical lesions). Specificity of the prospective scoring was 80.0%, 75.0%, 80.0%, 91.1% and 88.3%. Sensitivity and specificity did not significantly differ between double inversion recovery and phase-sensitive inversion recovery, while phase-sensitive inversion recovery identified more lesions than double inversion recovery upon retrospective analysis (126 versus 95; P < 0.001). We conclude that, at 3 T, double inversion recovery and phase-sensitive inversion recovery sequences outperform conventional sequences T1, proton-density/T2 and FLAIR. While their overall sensitivity does not exceed 25%, double inversion recovery and phase-sensitive inversion recovery are highly pathologically specific when using existing scoring criteria and their use is recommended for optimal cortical lesion assessment in multiple sclerosis.

Keywords: cortical lesions; double inversion recovery; multiple sclerosis; phase-sensitive inversion recovery; post-mortem imaging.

CoI: multiple

What is happening to my cortex?

A very common analogy is the comparison of MS to an iceberg. Why?

Only one-eighth of an iceberg is visible above the water; to see what is below the water line requires specialised technology. The MS iceberg analogy refers to several observations:

1. For each clinical relapse, 10 or more MRI visible lesions are seen on MRI.
2. For each visible white matter lesions on MRI, there are at least an equivalent number or more grey matter lesions. In fact, it is now estimated that more than half the MS pathology is in the grey matter.
3. For every visible white matter lesion, either on MRI or with the naked eye, there are 20 or more microscopic lesions present in the white matter.
4. Despite only a relatively small amount of brain or spinal cord atrophy, there is almost three times as much neuronal loss underlying the atrophy.
5. Despite a relatively good recovery of function in a particular pathway, for example, after a relapse, there is a substantial loss of axons and hence reserve capacity in that pathway.
6. People with MS have many more hidden symptoms and disabilities than visible physical disabilities; early MS is often a hidden disease.

When you use newer technologies, for example, a 7 Tesla MRI to look at cortical or grey matter lesions in MS you begin to see how large the iceberg really is. Please remember the vast majority of cortical MS lesions (>90%) or not seen with conventional MRI. The bad news in the study below is that almost all the pwMS studied had cortical lesions and these, not surprisingly, correlated with disability and cognitive impairment. What is interesting is that the lesions on the surface of the brain (subpial), but not those on the grey-white matter interface (leukocortical), correlated better with cortical volume. However, the grey-white matter interface, or leukocortical, lesions correlated most strongly with cognitive impairment.  

What is becoming increasingly important is to try and target the grey matter pathology and prevent cognitive impairment in pwMS. The problem is we don’t routinely monitor brain and in particular grey matter atrophy in routine clinical practice; in fact it is largely ignored. If we did we would probably find many more pwMS opting for the higher efficacy treatments that have the greatest impact on brain atrophy (alemtuzumab and HSCT).

It is important for you to realise that you can be NEDA-3, i.e. no clinical attacks and MRI activity, and still have progressive grey matter atrophy. Why this is happening is debatable. Some evidence points to immunoglobulins and complement activation, rather than cytotoxic T-cells, being the major driver of cortical pathology. This why Barts-MS is exploring add-on drugs that will hopefully target the B-cell follicles and plasma cells within the central nervous system to try and slow down this process. We plan to start recruiting for our add-on study later this year.

I have little doubt that slowing down and preventing progressive brain and grey matter atrophy will become one of the treatment targets for the next generation of MSologists. To make this a reality we need to have tools to measure these processes reliably in clinical practice.

Harrison et al. Association of Cortical Lesion Burden on 7-T Magnetic Resonance Imaging With Cognition and Disability in Multiple Sclerosis. JAMA Neurol. 2015 Jul 20. doi: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2015.1241.

IMPORTANCE: Cortical lesions (CLs) contribute to physical and cognitive disability in multiple sclerosis (MS). Accurate methods for visualization of CLs are necessary for future clinical studies and therapeutic trials in MS.

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the clinical relevance of measures of CL burden derived from high-field magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in MS.

DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: An observational clinical imaging study was conducted at an academic MS center. Participants included 36 individuals with MS (30 relapsing-remitting, 6 secondary or primary progressive) and 15 healthy individuals serving as controls. The study was conducted from March 10, 2010, to November 23, 2012, and analysis was performed from June 1, 2011, to September 30, 2014. Seven-Tesla MRI of the brain was performed with 0.5-mm isotropic resolution magnetization-prepared rapid acquisition gradient echo (MPRAGE) and whole-brain, 3-dimensional, 1.0-mm isotropic resolution magnetization-prepared, fluid-attenuated inversion recovery (MPFLAIR). Cortical lesions, seen as hypointensities on MPRAGE, were manually segmented. Lesions were classified as leukocortical, intracortical, or subpial. Images were segmented using the Lesion-TOADS (Topology-Preserving Anatomical Segmentation) algorithm, and brain structure volumes and white matter (WM) lesion volume were reported. Volumes were normalized to intracranial volume.

MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: Physical disability was measured by the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS). Cognitive disability was measured with the Minimal Assessment of Cognitive Function in MS battery.

RESULTS: Cortical lesions were noted in 35 of 36 participants (97%), with a median of 16 lesions per participant (range, 0-99). Leukocortical lesion volume correlated with WM lesion volume (ρ = 0.50; P = .003) but not with cortical volume; subpial lesion volume inversely correlated with cortical volume (ρ = -0.36; P = .04) but not with WM lesion volume. Total CL count and volume, measured as median (range), were significantly increased in participants with EDSS scores of 5.0 or more vs those with scores less than 5.0 (count: 29 [11-99] vs 13 [0-51]; volume: 2.81 × 10-4 [1.30 × 10-4 to 7.90 × 10-4] vs 1.50 × 10-4 [0 to 1.01 × 10-3]) and in cognitively impaired vs unimpaired individuals (count: 21 [0-99] vs 13 [1-54]; volume: 3.51 × 10-4 [0 to 1.01 × 10-4] vs 1.19 × 10-4 [0 to 7.17 × 10-4]). Cortical lesion volume correlated with EDSS scores more robustly than did WM lesion volume (ρ = 0.59 vs 0.36). Increasing log[CL volume] conferred a 3-fold increase in the odds of cognitive impairment (odds ratio [OR], 3.36; 95% CI, 1.07-10.59; P = .04) after adjustment for age and sex and a 14-fold increase in odds after adjustment for WM lesion volume and atrophy (OR, 14.26; 95% CI, 1.06-192.37; P = .045). Leukocortical lesions had the greatest effect on cognition (OR for log [leukocortical lesion volume], 9.65; 95% CI, 1.70-54.59, P = .01).

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: This study provides in vivo evidence that CLs are associated with cognitive and physical disability in MS and that leukocortical and subpial lesion subtypes have differing clinical relevance. Quantitative assessments of CL burden on high-field MRI may further our understanding of the development of disability and progression in MS and lead to more effective treatments.

CoI: multiple

Smouldering MS: does it exist?

… by taking an MRI-centric view of MS we may have lulled ourselves into a false sense of security. … an MRI worldview of MS has framed, and continues to frame, our perspective of MS and has created a cognitive bias.

I have recently posted on why you can have MS and have a normal MRI or a very low lesion load. I made the point that MS is a biological disease and not an MRIscopic disease, i.e. what you see on MRI is the tip of the tip of the iceberg and that most of MS pathology is hidden from view with conventional MRI. To capture this pathology we need to use unconventional imaging techniques or look at end-organ damage markers, i.e. whole brain, or preferably grey matter, volume loss or atrophy. Another option is serial CSF or possibly peripheral blood neurofilament levels. At least the end-organ damage markers will capture the end-result of MS pathology; the loss of neurones and axons.

In another recent blog post, I explained how someone with MS can still be deteriorating despite being NEDA (no evident disease activity). The NEDA here is referring to focal MS inflammatory activity, i.e. relapse(s) and new or enlarging lesions on MRI. The biology behind this worsening despite being NEDA could be driven by the delayed neuroaxonal loss from previous damage, ongoing diffuse inflammation which has become independent of focal lesions (innate activation), ageing mechanisms or focal inflammatory lesions that are too small to be detected with our monitoring tools. Of all the processes listed here, the last one is the only one that is modifiable by our current DMTs. Therefore I think we should reserve the term smouldering MS to this process, i.e. one that is modifiable by current DMTs.

The really important question this raises is when you treat someone a DMT and they become NEDA how do you know they don’t have smouldering MS and would benefit from being escalated to a more effective DMT? One commentator asked specifically about cladribine.

‘If a patient was treated with cladribine and was rendered relapse and MRI activity free how can we be sure that this patient did not have smouldering MS?’

This is why we need to start using end-organ damage markers and more sensitive inflammatory markers to look for and define smouldering MS. We may then be able to answer this question. However, this won’t necessarily tell us if escalating people with smouldering MS to more effective DMTs, for example, natalizumab, alemtuzumab or ocrelizumab will result in them doing better than them simply waiting for their smouldering MS to become overtly active MS before making a switch in their treatment.

A point has been made that primary progressive MS (PPMS) is simply smouldering RRMS and that all we are doing with our DMTs is converting people with RRMS to PPMS and delaying the inevitable progressive phase of the disease.  I don’t buy this because a proportion of pwMS who have been treated early on with an immune reconstitution therapy or IRT in particular with alemtuzumab or HSCT appear to be in very longterm remission and may even be cured of their MS (please read my previous post on this topic). Some would argue, I included, that this group of patients has not been followed up for long enough to be sure they have been cured. I agree with you and this is why I have proposed doing a deep phenotyping study to assess whether or not these patients have any evidence of ongoing MS disease activity. This study would help define smouldering MS, by looking for its absence.

What this post is telling me is that by taking an MRI-centric view of MS we may have lulled ourselves into a false sense of security. In other words, an MRI worldview of MS has framed, and continues to frame, our perspective of MS and has created a cognitive bias. Dare I call it an MRIscopic bias?