Axonal loss in major sensorimotor tracts is associated with impaired motor performance in minimally disabled multiple sclerosis patients

Myrte Strik, L. Eduardo Cofré Lizama, Camille J. Shanahan, Anneke Van Der Walt, Frederique M.C. Boonstra, Rebecca Glarin, Trevor J. Kilpatrick, Jeroen J.G. Geurts, Jon O. Cleary, Menno M. Schoonheim, Mary P. Galea, Scott C. Kolbe

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Multiple sclerosis is a neuroinflammatory disease of the CNS that is associated with significant irreversible neuro-axonal loss, leading to permanent disability. There is thus an urgent need for in vivo markers of axonal loss for use in patient monitoring or as end-points for trials of neuroprotective agents. Advanced diffusion MRI can provide markers of diffuse loss of axonal fibre density or atrophy within specific white matter pathways. These markers can be interrogated in specific white matter tracts that underpin important functional domains such as sensorimotor function. This study aimed to evaluate advanced diffusion MRI markers of axonal loss within the major sensorimotor tracts of the brain, and to correlate the degree of axonal loss in these tracts to precise kinematic measures of hand and foot motor control and gait in minimally disabled people with multiple sclerosis. Twenty-eight patients (Expanded Disability Status Scale < 4, and Kurtzke Functional System Scores for pyramidal and cerebellar function ≤ 2) and 18 healthy subjects underwent ultra-high field 7 Tesla diffusion MRI for calculation of fibre-specific measures of axonal loss (fibre density, reflecting diffuse axonal loss and fibre cross-section reflecting tract atrophy) within three tracts: cortico-spinal tract, interhemispheric sensorimotor tract and cerebello-thalamic tracts. A visually guided force-matching task involving either the hand or foot was used to assess visuomotor control, and three-dimensional marker-based video tracking was used to assess gait. Fibre-specific axonal markers for each tract were compared between groups and correlated with visuomotor task performance (force error and lag) and gait parameters (stance, stride length, step width, single and double support) in patients. Patients displayed significant regional loss of fibre cross-section with minimal loss of fibre density in all tracts of interest compared to healthy subjects (family-wise error corrected p-value < 0.05), despite relatively few focal lesions within these tracts. In patients, reduced axonal fibre density and cross-section within the corticospinal tracts and interhemispheric sensorimotor tracts were associated with larger force tracking error and gait impairments (shorter stance, smaller step width and longer double support) (family-wise error corrected p-value < 0.05). In conclusion, significant gait and motor control impairments can be detected in minimally disabled people with multiple sclerosis that correlated with axonal loss in major sensorimotor pathways of the brain. Given that axonal loss is irreversible, the combined use of advanced imaging and kinematic markers could be used to identify patients at risk of more severe motor impairments as they emerge for more aggressive therapeutic interventions.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberfcab032
Number of pages17
JournalBrain Communications
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • axonal degeneration
  • diffusion-weighted imaging
  • motor disability
  • multiple sclerosis
  • ultra-high field imaging

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