Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a relatively common acquired chronic relapsing demyelinating disease involving the central nervous system, and is the second most common cause of neurological impairment in young adults, after trauma 19. Characteristically, and by definition, multiple sclerosis is disseminated not only in space (i.e. multiple lesions in different regions of the brain) but also in time (i.e. lesions occur at different times).
A number of clinical variants are recognized, each with specific imaging findings and clinical presentation. They include:
- classic multiple sclerosis (Charcot type)
- tumefactive multiple sclerosis
- Marburg type (acute malignant)
- Schilder type (diffuse cerebral sclerosis)
- Balo concentric sclerosis
This article concerns itself primarily with classic (Charcot type) multiple sclerosis. The other variants are discussed separately.
Importantly, neuromyelitis optica (Devic disease) was considered a variant of multiple sclerosis, but is now recognized as a distinct entity, and is therefore also discussed separately.
The presentation is usually between adolescence and the sixth decade, with a peak at approximately 35 years of age 12,19. There is a strong, well recognized female predilection with a F:M ratio of approximately 2:1 19.
Multiple sclerosis has a fascinating geographic distribution: it is rarely found in equatorial regions (e.g. 15 per 100,000), with incidence gradually increasing with distance from the equator (e.g. 250 per 100,000) 12, 19.
Clinical presentation is both highly variable acutely, as a result of varying plaque location, as well as over time. Examples of common clinical features include 23,24:
- brainstem and cranial nerve involvement:
- cerebellum involvement:
- ataxia and gait disturbance
- cerebrum and spinal cord involvement:
- limb sensory loss or paraesthesias
- upper motor neuron signs
- Lhermitte sign
- urinary incontinence
- Uhthoff phenomenon: heat and exercise worsen symptoms
- cognitive decline
A number of patterns of longitudinal disease have been described 11,12:
- most common (70% of cases)
- patients exhibit periodic symptoms with complete recovery (early on)
- approximately 85% of patients with relapsing-remitting MS eventually enter a secondary progressive phase
- uncommon (10% of cases)
- patients do not have remissions, with neurological deterioration being relentless
- progressive with relapses
benign multiple sclerosis
- 15-50% of cases
- defined as patients who remain functionally active for over 15 years
As is evident from this list, there is overlap, and in some cases, patients can drift from one pattern to another.
Upon presentation patients often have evidence of multiple previous asymptomatic lesions, and the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis can be strongly inferred. In other instances patients present with the first plaque. This is known as clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) and not all patients go on to develop multiple sclerosis.
Radiologically isolated syndrome (RIS) is another entity based on MRI brain findings which described as incidental white matter lesions suggestive of MS on imaging in a patient without associated clinical symptoms 17.
The diagnosis of multiple sclerosis requires the constellation of clinical findings and various investigations (see McDonald diagnostic criteria for multiple sclerosis), including 19:
- typical history
- oligoclonal bands in CSF
- immunoglobulin G in serum
- abnormal visual evoked potential
- MR imaging
- lack of viable alternative diagnosis
The exact etiology is poorly known although it is believed to have both genetic and acquired contributory components. An infectious agent (e.g. EBV), or at least a catalyst, has long been suspected due to the geographic distribution and presence of clusters of cases; however, no agent has yet been firmly confirmed. Some authors also suggested that "chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency" can cause or exacerbate MS but this theory has not been proven by further investigations 15.
Multiple sclerosis is believed to result from a cell-mediated autoimmune response against one's own myelin components, with loss of oligodendrocytes, with little or no axonal degeneration in the acute phase; however, in later stages, loss of oligodendrocytes results in axonal degeneration.
Demyelination occurs in discrete perivenular foci, termed plaques, which range in size from a few millimeters to a few centimeters 19.
Each lesion goes through three pathological stages:
early acute stage (active plaques)
- active myelin breakdown
- plaques appear pink and swollen
- plaques become paler in color ("chalky")
- abundant macrophages
chronic stage (inactive plaques/gliosis)
- little or no myelin breakdown
- gliosis with associated volume loss
- appear grey/translucent
- a strong association with HLA-DR2 class II has been identified 11
- Melkersson-Rosenthal syndrome: postulated
Plaques can occur anywhere in the central nervous system. They are typically ovoid in shape and perivenular in distribution.
CT features are usually non-specific, and significant change may be seen on MRI with an essentially normal CT scan. Features that may be present include:
- plaques can be homogeneously hypoattenuating 8,11
- brain atrophy may be evident in with long-standing chronic MS 5
- some plaques may show contrast enhancement in the active phase 7,11
MRI has revolutionised the diagnosis and surveillance of patients with MS. Not only can an MRI confirm the diagnosis (see McDonald diagnostic criteria for multiple sclerosis), but follow-up scans can assess response to treatment and help determine the disease pattern.
Although many sequences are contributory, the 2018 Revised Guidelines of the Consortium of MS Centers MRI Protocol for the Diagnosis and Follow-up of MS plaques lists the following core sequences 25:
- FLAIR (axial and sagittal)
- ideally performed as a 3D volumetric scan (1 mm isotropic), or
- 3mm contiguous
- T1: 3D inversion recovery prepared gradient echo
- T2 (axial): 3D or 2D
- DWI (axial)
Note: contrast is not necessary for routine asymptomatic followup.
- lesions are typically hyperintense
- acute lesions often have surrounding edema
- central vein sign: at higher field strengths most plaques have been shown to be perivenular (at 3 T, 45% of lesions; at 7 T, 87% of lesions) 19
- lesions are typically hyperintense
- a very early sign is called ependymal dot-dash sign 16
- when these propagate centrifugally along the medullary venules and arranged perpendicular to the lateral ventricles in a triangular configuration (extending radially outward - best seen on parasagittal images), they are termed Dawson's fingers
- FLAIR is more sensitive than T2 in the detection of juxtacortical and periventricular plaques, while T2 is more sensitive to infratentorial lesions
T1 C+ (Gd)
- active lesions show enhancement
- enhancement is often incomplete around the periphery (open ring sign)
- active plaques may demonstrate high or low ADC (increased or decreased diffusion) 10-11-22
- also typically open ring in morphology
- NAA peaks may be reduced within plaques, which is the most common and remarkable finding
- choline and lactate are found to be increased in the acute pathologic phase
- double inversion recovery DIR: a new sequence that suppresses both CSF and white matter signal and offers better delineation of the plaques.
Location of the plaques can be infratentorial, in the deep white matter, periventricular, juxtacortical or mixed white matter-grey matter lesions.
Even on a single scan, some features are helpful in predicting relapsing-remitting vs. progressive disease. Features favoring progressive disease include:
- large numerous plaques
- hyperintense T1 lesions
Treatment and prognosis
The aim of treatment is twofold: to curtail progression (disease-modifying agents) and symptomatic relief.
Steroids, interferon, monoclonal antibodies and autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation are all used. Although discussion of individual agents and therapies is well beyond the scope of this article, it is worth being aware of the main agents available and their mechanism of action 20:
- interferon beta: inhibition of T-lymphocyte proliferation
- glatiramer acetate: immunomodulation
- teriflunomide (Aubagio®): reduces both T-cell and B-cell activation and proliferation
- dimethyl fumarate (Tecfidera®): immunomodulation
- fingolimod (Gilenya®): prevents lymphocyte migration out of lymph nodes and into CNS
- natalizumab (Tysabri®): inhibits binding of lymphocytes to endothelium
- alemtuzumab (Lemtrada®): immunomodulation of T-cell and B-cell function
- mitoxantrone: reduces T-cell and B-cell proliferation and reduces T-cell activation
In addition to the potential for disease progression resulting in progressive neurological impairment, a number of specific complications need to be considered. These include 20,21:
progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) and other less common CNS JC virus manifestations (JC virus granule cell neuronopathy, JC virus encephalopathy, and JC virus meningitis)
- particularly in patients treated with natalizumab with positive JC virus serology
- a complication of cessation of natalizumab or treatment for natalizumab-related PML with plasma exchange or immunoabsorption 21
primary CNS lymphoma
- rarely lymphoma appears to arise from previously identified demyelinating lesions
Prognosis is variable and depends on the pattern of disease a patient has (e.g. primary progressive carries a worse prognosis than relapsing-remitting).
In general, patients with relapsing-remitting MS will progress to secondary progressive disease in 10 years and will require ambulatory aids (e.g. cane/wheelchair/frame) in another 5 to 15 years 12. Approximately half of the affected individuals will no longer be independently ambulatory after 20 years 19.
Overall life expectancy is also reduced, by 7 to 14 years 19.
The differential diagnosis is dependent on the location and appearance of demyelination. For classic (Charcot type) MS, the differential can be divided into intracranial and spinal involvement.
For intracranial disease, the differential includes almost all other demyelinating diseases as well as:
- CNS fungal infection (e.g. Cryptococcus neoformans) - patients tend to be immunocompromised
- mucopolysaccharidosis (e.g. Hurler disease) - congenital and occurs in a younger age group
- Marchiafava-Bignami disease (for callosal lesions)
- Susac syndrome
- CNS manifestations of primary antiphospholipid syndrome 13
For spinal involvement, the following should be considered:
- 1. Sheldon JJ, Siddharthan R, Tobias J et-al. MR imaging of multiple sclerosis: comparison with clinical and CT examinations in 74 patients. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 1985;145 (5): 957-64. AJR Am J Roentgenol (abstract) - Pubmed citation
- 2. Richards TL. Proton MR spectroscopy in multiple sclerosis: value in establishing diagnosis, monitoring progression, and evaluating therapy. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 1991;157 (5): 1073-8. AJR Am J Roentgenol (abstract) - Pubmed citation
- 3. Lövblad KO, Anzalone N, Dörfler A et-al. MR imaging in multiple sclerosis: review and recommendations for current practice. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2010;31 (6): 983-9. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A1906 - Pubmed citation
- 4. Caracciolo JT, Murtagh RD, Rojiani AM et-al. Pathognomonic MR imaging findings in Balo concentric sclerosis. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2001;22 (2): 292-3. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol (full text) - Pubmed citation
- 5. Ge Y, Grossman RI, Udupa JK et-al. Brain atrophy in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis: fractional volumetric analysis of gray matter and white matter. Radiology. 2001;220 (3): 606-10. doi:10.1148/radiol.2203001776 - Pubmed citation
- 6. Tan IL, Van schijndel RA, Pouwels PJ et-al. MR venography of multiple sclerosis. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 21 (6): 1039-42. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol (full text) - Pubmed citation
- 7. Maravilla KR, Weinreb JC, Suss R et-al. Magnetic resonance demonstration of multiple sclerosis plaques in the cervical cord. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 1985;144 (2): 381-5. AJR Am J Roentgenol (abstract) - Pubmed citation
- 8. Nesbit GM, Forbes GS, Scheithauer BW et-al. Multiple sclerosis: histopathologic and MR and/or CT correlation in 37 cases at biopsy and three cases at autopsy. Radiology. 1991;180 (2): 467-74. Radiology (abstract) - Pubmed citation
- 9. Miller DH, Grossman RI, Reingold SC et-al. The role of magnetic resonance techniques in understanding and managing multiple sclerosis. Brain. 1998;121 ( Pt 1) : 3-24. Brain (link) - Pubmed citation
- 10. Nusbaum AO, Lu D, Tang CY et-al. Quantitative diffusion measurements in focal multiple sclerosis lesions: correlations with appearance on TI-weighted MR images. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2000;175 (3): 821-5. AJR Am J Roentgenol (full text) - Pubmed citation
- 11. Kornienko VN, Pronin IN. Diagnostic Neuroradiology. Springer Verlag. (2008) ISBN:3540756523. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 12. Brust JC. Current diagnosis & treatment in neurology. McGraw-Hill Medical. (2006) ISBN:0071423664. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 13. Stosic M, Ambrus J, Garg N et-al. MRI characteristics of patients with antiphospholipid syndrome and multiple sclerosis. J. Neurol. 2010;257 (1): 63-71. doi:10.1007/s00415-009-5264-6 - Pubmed citation
- 14. Wattjes MP, Lutterbey GG, Gieseke J et-al. Double inversion recovery brain imaging at 3T: diagnostic value in the detection of multiple sclerosis lesions. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2007;28 (1): 54-9. Pubmed citation
- 15. Garaci FG, Marziali S, Meschini A et-al. Brain hemodynamic changes associated with chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency are not specific to multiple sclerosis and do not increase its severity. Radiology. 2012;265 (1): 233-9. doi:10.1148/radiol.12112245 - Pubmed citation
- 16. Lisanti CJ, Asbach P, Bradley WG. The ependymal "Dot-Dash" sign: an MR imaging finding of early multiple sclerosis. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2005;26 (8): 2033-6. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol (full text) - Pubmed citation
- 17. Okuda DT, Mowry EM, Beheshtian A et-al. Incidental MRI anomalies suggestive of multiple sclerosis: the radiologically isolated syndrome. Neurology. 2009;72 (9): 800-5. doi:10.1212/01.wnl.0000335764.14513.1a - Pubmed citation
- 18. Janardhan V, Suri S, Bakshi R. Multiple sclerosis: hyperintense lesions in the brain on nonenhanced T1-weighted MR images evidenced as areas of T1 shortening. Radiology. 2007;244 (3): 823-31. doi:10.1148/radiol.2443051171 - Pubmed citation
- 19. Sarbu N, Shih RY, Jones RV et-al. White Matter Diseases with Radiologic-Pathologic Correlation. Radiographics. 2016;36 (5): 1426-47. doi:10.1148/rg.2016160031 - Pubmed citation
- 20. McNamara C, Sugrue G, Murray B, MacMahon PJ. Current and Emerging Therapies in Multiple Sclerosis: Implications for the Radiologist, Part 1-Mechanisms, Efficacy, and Safety. AJNR. American journal of neuroradiology. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A5147 - Pubmed
- 21. McNamara C, Sugrue G, Murray B, MacMahon PJ. Current and Emerging Therapies in Multiple Sclerosis: Implications for the Radiologist, Part 2-Surveillance for Treatment Complications and Disease Progression. AJNR. American journal of neuroradiology. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A5148 - Pubmed
- 22. Rueda-Lopes FC, Hygino da Cruz LC, Doring TM, Gasparetto EL. Diffusion-weighted imaging and demyelinating diseases: new aspects of an old advanced sequence. AJR. American journal of roentgenology. 202 (1): W34-42. doi:10.2214/AJR.13.11400 - Pubmed
- 23. Weinshenker BG, Bass B, Rice GP, Noseworthy J, Carriere W, Baskerville J, Ebers GC. The natural history of multiple sclerosis: a geographically based study. I. Clinical course and disability. (1989) Brain : a journal of neurology. 112 ( Pt 1): 133-46. Pubmed
- 24. Ropper AH, Samuels MA, Klein JP. Adams and Victor's principles of neurology 10th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical Pub. Division; 2014.
- 25. 2018 Revised Guidelines of the Consortium of MS Centers MRI Protocol for the Diagnosis and Follow-up of MS www.mscare.org/page/MRI_protocol
Related Radiopaedia articles
White matter disorders
- white matter
- normal myelination
white matter disorders
- anti-MOG associated encephalomyelitis
- Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)
- chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP)
- transverse myelitis
- tumefactive demyelinating lesions
- acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM)
- acute hemorrhagic encephalomyelitis (AHEM)
- neuromyelitis optica (NMO) (Devic disease)
multiple sclerosis (MS)
McDonald diagnostic criteria for MS (current 2017 revision)
- previous 2016 MAGNIMS consensus
- McDonald diagnostic criteria for MS (current 2017 revision)
- radiologically isolated syndrome (RIS)
- clinically isolated syndrome (CIS)
- early-onset neuronal degenerative disorders
- GM1 & GM2 gangliosidoses (e.g. Tay Sachs disease)
- giant axonal neuropathy
- hypomyelination with atrophy of the basal ganglia and cerebellum (H-ABC)
- hypomyelination with congenital cataract
- leukoencephalopathy with brainstem and spinal cord involvement and lactate elevation
- hypomyelination with brainstem and spinal cord involvement and leg spasticity
- Pol III-related leukodystrophies
- early-onset neuronal degenerative disorders
- myelin disorders
- myelin vacuolisation
- adult-onset autosomal dominant leukodystrophy
- cerebrotendinous xanthomathosis
- cystic leukoencephalopathy without megalencephaly
- L-2-hydroxyglutaric aciduria
- lysosomal storage diseases
- peroxisomal disorders
- Sjögren-Larsson syndrome