MRI and neurophysiological measures

  • Comprehensive MS Care

Why is this important to me?

MS is a complex disease, and the effectiveness of disease-modifying therapies varies from person to person. Let's think about the reasons for these differences in the way people respond to therapy: first, we know that MS differs in the intensity and kinds of symptoms that people experience. Second, each individual with MS responds differently to a specific therapy. Available disease-modifying therapies have several and often different ways of working, so it should not surprise anyone that one therapy may not work for an individual, and another may deliver good results.


In MS, damage to the brain and spinal cord occurs during the disease process. Thus, early and accurate monitoring of this damage is needed to assess disease progression and how well an individual is responding to treatment, and to predict future disability. So, MRI and other tests can help healthcare providers assess how well an individual is responding to their disease-monitoring therapy.


What is the objective of this study?

The authors discussed two different methods of monitoring damage to the brain and spinal cord in MRI and neurophysiological monitoring.


Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

  • MRI allows your medical team to see changes in the structure of your brain and spinal cord. The authors looked at how well MRI was able to predict the likelihood that an individual who had experienced a clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) would convert to MS and how quickly they would likely convert.
  • MRI can show:
    • Lesions
    • Brain shrinkage, or atrophy
    • Inflammation
  • The presence of a type of lesion called “T2 hyperintense” lesions on MRI in people with clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) can help to predict conversion to MS and future disability.
  • Lesions in the spinal cord or gray matter (regions of the brain that contain primarily nerve cells) on MRI also appear to be useful in predicting conversion to MS in people with CIS.
  • Brain atrophy occurring shortly after a CIS seems to predict early conversion to MS.


Neurophysiological monitoring

  • Neurophysiological monitoring allows the healthcare team to monitor changes in the function of your brain and spinal cord. This type of monitoring can help healthcare providers to understand how the brain and spinal cord respond to stimulation. These are generally called "evoked potentials.”
  • The most common types of evoked potentials are:
    • Visual, which measure the brain's response to light and color.
    • Somatosensory, which measure the brain and spinal cord response to pressure, pain, and warmth.
    • Motor, which monitors the response of peripheral muscles to stimulation of the brain's motor cortex.
  • Combined use of several neurophysiological monitoring techniques can help to assess the extent of disability and may provide insight into the likelihood of early, intermediate, and long-term future disability.
  • Monitoring of motor systems can predict recovery after a relapse.
  • Some types of vision monitoring can predict disability and damage to the spinal cord, but we do not yet know whether vision monitoring can help to predict an individual's response to disease-monitoring therapy.


As our ability to view and monitor changes in the structure and function of the brain and spinal cord improves with technology, we believe that this understanding will allow personalized selection of treatments that are best suited for you, and may ultimately lead to a better outcome.


How did the authors study this issue?

The authors reviewed various studies describing the use of MRI and neurophysiological monitoring in people with CIS or MS.     

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Original Article

MRI and neurophysiological measures to predict course, disability and treatment response in multiple sclerosis

Current Opinion in Neurology

Leocani, Letizia; Rocca, Maria A.; Comi, Giancarlo


Purpose of review The expanding portfolio for multiple sclerosis treatment, together with the consensus that neurodegenerative processes occur since the early disease phases, has increased the need for paraclinical tests with prognostic value on disease evolution and treatment response.

Recent findings

On the one hand, we face the development of MRI technology, from lesion detection, to global and regional volumetric measures, to tissue damage quantification within brain and spinal cord lesions and in normal appearing tissue, together with increased knowledge about their application. On the other hand, traditional neurophysiological techniques, such as evoked potentials, are being recently analyzed with a quantitative approach allowing us to reveal their correlation with actual and future disability, and are being complemented by more recent technical advancements, such as multifocal visual evoked potentials and optical coherence tomography, for the assessment of demyelination/remyelination and axonal loss, respectively.


The increased value of MRI and neurophysiological tools in predicting disease evolution and treatment response will impact the therapeutic management of multiple sclerosis, from the choice of the first treatment to the type and frequency of monitoring toward a tailored, time-adapting treatment approach.


The choice of several first-line and second-line treatment options in multiple sclerosis has raised the i nterest in paraclinical measures for prognosis and monitoring of the disease course and treatment response. MRI provides important information on structural and functional nervous damage and has a unique value in revealing ongoing inflammation in the central nervous system. Neurophysiological techniques, particularly evoked potentials although much less sensitive to brain lesions compared with MRI, allow the functional assessment of central nervous conduction in eloquent pathways whose involvement plays an important role in determining disability. The possibility to provide information on the impact of demyelination on nervous conduction provides a rationale for their use as predictors of neurodegeneration prompted by demyelinating events, as well as markers of treatment response to agents improving nervous conduction, including remyelinating drugs. Following are recent advances in MRI and neurophysiological techniques in this respect. Individualized approach is the new horizon of multiple sclerosis therapy because of the complexity of the disease resulting in an interindividual variability and a large variability of the response to disease-modifying treatments (DMTs). The availability of techniques providing information on the level of tissue damage and on the future evolution of the disease (prognosis) is fundamental for the selection of the most appropriate treatment based on the specific risk/benefit profile. On the contrary, there are some initial evidences that also show the response to treatments could be quite variable, so the same techniques could also contribute to understand if a given patient has a good probability to respond to specific DMTs (predictivity). In this review, we will analyze aspects of both MRI and neurophysiological techniques.



MRI has an established role in the diagnostic workup of patients presenting with clinically isolated syndromes (CIS) suggestive of multiple sclerosis for an early demonstration of disease dissemination in space (DIS) and time and to rule out other neurological conditions that can mimic multiple sclerosis. This has led to the formal inclusion of MRI in the multiple sclerosis diagnostic criteria, which are updated routinely. Consensus guidelines for modifications of diagnostic MRI criteria have been recently proposed by the Magnetic Resonance Imaging in MS (MAGNIMS) network, based on latest imaging findings in these patients [1&&].


A study on a well-characterized cohort of 1015 patients with a mean clinical follow-up of 81 months confirmed that the number of brain T2 hyperintense lesions on the baseline MRI scans of these patients is the most robust predictor not only of conversion to multiple sclerosis over time, but also of accumulation of disability [2&&] (Fig. 1). Another 4.1-year follow-up study of 623 CIS cases further supported the importance of the number of baseline brain T2 focal lesions for multiple sclerosis development [3].


One aspect that has recently emerged, and which has been included in the MAGNIMS 2016 revision [1&&], is that the presence of three periventricular lesions is better than a single periventricular lesion to demonstrate DIS in CIS patients at risk of evolution to multiple sclerosis [4,5]. Having more than three periventricular lesions also contributes to distinguish multiple sclerosis patients from those with primary and secondary CNS vasculitis [6].


Other lesional MRI measures, which have been associated with an increased risk of evolution to multiple sclerosis over time, are the presence of spinal cord lesions (particularly in patients with CIS and nonspinal presentation, not fulfilling brain MRI for DIS) [7] and gray matter lesions [8]. Conversely a large multicenter study demonstrated that the presence of nonenhancing T1-hypointense lesions has no role for predicting a second clinical attack [9].


Substantial imaging improvements have occurred in terms of ameliorating differential diagnosis and improving specificity. Separated diagnostic criteria, including detailed imaging findings, have been proposed for neuromyelitis optica (NMO) spectrum disorders [10]. The utility of gray matter lesion detection and of the identification of the perivenular lesion location (obtained using T2 -weighted magnitude and phase imaging) for distinguishing multiple sclerosis from multiple sclerosis-mimicking conditions such as migraine [11], NMO [12] and ischemic white matter (WM) lesions [13] has been proven.


In a 53-month follow-up study of 176 CIS patients, atrophy of the whole brain and gray matter occurred within the first year after clinical onset. Short-term global brain volume loss after the CIS was associated with early disability development and early conversion to multiple sclerosis [14]. Development of gray matter atrophy and ventricular enlargement has been associated with disability progression over 4 years in another cohort [15].


A 2-year study that combined atrophy and diffusion tensor MRI found dynamic modifications of regional gray matter and WM damage in CIS, with a progressive evolution of WM damage from disease onset and a transient, early increase in gray matter volume (which might reflect gray matter demyelination), followed by gray matter atrophy [16& ] (Fig. 2).



In patients with established multiple sclerosis, improvements in the methods of acquisition and analysis have allowed obtaining novel pieces of information to distinguish the main disease clinical phenotypes and predict worsening of disability and cognitive dysfunction.


The prominent role played by gray matter damage in explaining disease clinical manifestations has been proven by plenty of studies, which have applied various MRI techniques, sensitive toward different pathological substrates of the disease, to measure gray matter involvement. An important step forward is the demonstration that some of these techniques preserve their validity when applied in a multicenter context, which clearly opens the windows for their use in the context of clinical trials and treatment monitoring [17,18]. Assessment of involvement of strategic gray matter structures contributes to explain the occurrence of specific symptoms and clinical progression. Hippocampal atrophy has been associated with deficits in memory encoding and retrieval [19]; lower g-aminobutyric acid concentration in the sensorimotor cortex correlated with worse motor function [20]; extension of cord lesions to gray matter has been associated with progressive multiple sclerosis and disability [21] and atrophy and microstructural abnormalities of the cord gray matter were more pronounced in secondary progressive multiple sclerosis patients and correlated with more severe disability [22,23&&].


In patients with relapse-onset multiple sclerosis, measures of gray matter damage taken on a baseline scan were the most important predictors of disability accumulation, evolution toward a more severe clinical phenotype and cognitive deterioration over the subsequent 13 years [24]. In a multicenter study of patients with long-established multiple sclerosis, long-term physical disability was independently correlated with cord atrophy and brain T2 lesions, and less consistently, with brain gray matter atrophy, suggesting that combinations of spinal cord and brain MRI measures may be required to capture clinically relevant information in multiple sclerosis patients of long disease duration [25].


Novel in-vivo measures of important pathological processes have also been proposed. A reduced magnetization transfer ratio (MTR) of the outer surface of the cortex has been proposed as a measure of subpial demyelination. Such a reduction has been detected in multiple sclerosis patients with the main disease phenotypes, with the lowest values seen in secondary progressive multiple sclerosis [26]. Surface expansion of the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus has been described in multiple sclerosis patients (Fig. 3), and in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis it has been correlated with better cognitive performance and higher T2 focal lesions, suggesting an inflammation-induced neurogenic (reactive) process of the subgranular zone of the hippocampus aimed at rescuing the functional competence of hippocampal circuitry [27& ].


The dynamic relationship between WM and gray matter damage and their contribution to disease clinical manifestations remain an unsolved issue. A 2-year study, exploring the temporal relationship between WM and gray matter damage, quantified using MTR, in patients with early primary progressive multiple sclerosis showed that over the period of observation, the majority of cortical damage was for a sequela of normal-appearing WM disease, which, in turn, was predicted by abnormalities in WM lesions [28]. Several multiparametric studies consistently support the notion of a complex interplay between damage to the WM and gray matter in determining disease clinical manifestations, including cognitive impairment [29,30].



Evoked potentials, comprising sensory (visual, somatosensory and brainstem auditory) and motor evoked potentials to transcranial magnetic stimulation, assess functionally relevant eloquent pathways, including those not routinely assessed by MRI such as optic nerves and dorso-lumbar spinal cord [31]. Used in combination, they have been reported to well correlate with global measures of disability in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis [32,33] and in primary progressive multiple sclerosis [34] and to be predictive of future medium long-term disability [32,35]. For longitudinal monitoring, particularly for clinical trials, the use of quantitative evoked potentials parameters offers an advantage compared with qualitative assessment, with a lower number of patients needed to demonstrate a significant change and better correlation with changes in disability [36&&]. Concerning single modalities, brainstem auditory evoked potentials have the lowest sensitivity at cross-sectional and longitudinal evaluations [32,37], possibly due to the shortest pathway explored, and may be most suitable for the assessment of specific brainstem symptoms. Somatosensory evoked potentials and motor evoked potentials (MEP), particularly to the lower limb, have the advantage of testing the integrity of the corticospinal pathway which is a major determinant of disability, particularly involving locomotion, with the most specific correlation represented by MEPs [38].


Visual evoked potentials (VEP) may detect the involvement of a relevant and frequently affected function, which may be underestimated at standard routine clinical examination. For instance, brain plasticity, reported as a major predictor of highcontrast vision recovery after optic neuritis [39], may compensate for optic nerve damage thus masking the functional consequences of the event. The improvement of VEPs after optic neuritis, occurring over more than 3–5 years [40,41] possibly in relation to remyelination [42,43] or ion channel reorganization [44], as well as slow VEPs latency worsening in the asymptomatic eye, would have been undetected by clinical examination alone but corresponded to changes in contrast sensitivity [41]. Compared with high-contrast, low-contrast visual acuity seems more suitable for monitoring treatment effects [45]. For this reason, the impact of low-contrast stimulation to record VEPs, already suggested in pivotal studies [46], should be better explored. The stability, over more than 3 years, of delayed latency in eyes without past optic neuritis symptoms suggests that VEPs may be useful to test remyelination in clinical trials [40]. This possibility is consistent with the evidence of a good reproducibility of VEPs in multicenter [47] and single center [48], and of the more recent multifocal VEPs (mfVEPs). The latter allow simultaneous but separate assessment of different sectors of central and peripheral visual fields [49], while standard recordings to full-field stimulation (VEPs or ffVEPs) mostly reflect the activity of cortical macular representation. This feature may offer an advantage in detecting and monitoring the involvement of partial optic nerve regions, and to provide more reliable information on retro-chiasmal pathways [50&&]. Compared with standard ffVEPs, mfVEPs have been reported more sensitive both in symptomatic and asymptomatic eyes [49]. In the absence of a previous history of optic neuritis, VEPs sensitivity ranges from 20 to 50% [51,52,53&&,54], which is higher compared with OCT [52,53&&,55–57]. OCT allows us to image retinal neuronal structures such as the ganglion cell layer (GCL) and the retinal nerve fiber layer (RNFL), consisting of amyelinic axons of GCL forming the optic nerve, and to monitor their degeneration following optic nerve damage [58]. In multiple sclerosis, RNFL thickness RNFL thinning follows optic neuritis and correlates with ffVEP latencies [53&&,57,59], whereas in asymptomatic eyes it is associated with delayed latency of ffVEPs [53&&], as well as mfVEP [60,61]. Correlations between thinning of retinal neuronal structures at OCT and brain MRI measures suggest bidirectional transynaptic neurodegeration processes [62,63]. Although VEPs abnormalities correlate well with visual impairment [53&&], little correlation between VEPs and future long-term disability expressed by expanded disability status scale (EDSS) [32,35,64]. Nevertheless, OCT correlates with disability [65] and with spinal cord damage [66], suggesting a better sensitivity of OCT to neuronal damage that occurs independently to slowing of conduction along the visual pathways, which is the main feature influencing ffVEPs. Structural damage as shown by OCT has a prognostic value for future disability [67&&]. However, evidence is missing about any role of OCT in predicting response to DMT. Moreover, its combination with VEPs may be important to disentangle OCT changes related to widespread neurodegenerative processes from those associated with subclinical lesions locally affecting the optic nerve. Although ffVEPs are ideally a better candidate for combination with OCT in monitoring subclinical myelin and axonal damage in multiple sclerosis, due to their lower amplitude variability of mfVEP compared with ffVEP [48] and to a good topographic correspondence with OCT findings [68], larger comparative studies are needed in order to define the best testing algorithm, including neurophysiology, neuroimaging and psychophysical measures, for detecting and monitoring subclinical nervous damage.


Also, the combination of VEPs and MEPs has been shown to provide prognostic information not only at the early stages of multiple sclerosis for medium-term [64,69] and long-term [70] disability, particularly when recorded outside the acute period of a relapse [71& ], but also in primary progressive multiple sclerosis [72]. MEPs correlate with disability also when considered alone [32,73]. Corticospinal delay may be predictive of response to aminopyridine, which improves conduction along demyelinated axons [74]. Corticospinal plasticity, assessed as change in MEPs following pairedassociative stimulation, has been shown to predict clinical recovery of symptoms after a relapse [75&&]. One last mention should involve cognitive potentials, reflecting the extent of cognitive impairment [76] and predicting response to symptomatic treatment such as modafinil for fatigue [77], but deserving further exploration to assess their role in predicting the future evolution of cognitive impairment and the reserve for responsiveness to cognitive rehabilitation.



If the levels of disease severity and disease activity are playing a role in predicting treatment response, we should find a good role for both MRI and neurophysiological techniques, alone or in combination with clinical markers. There is a major problem in assessing predictive values of treatment response in the absence of a placebo arm because the candidate biomarker may have a prognostic influence or it may really have a predictive value of how the patient will respond to that specific treatment, or it can be a variable combination of both. Moreover, there are other methodological problems analyzed in a recent review from Sormani and De Stefano [78], including the difficulty in defining the treatment response. The evaluation of the predictive value of biomarkers for treatment response can be done just before to start a treatment to orient treatment decisions or in the first period after treatment initiation, usually 6–12 months in order to perceive the early effects of the treatment. Data on the baseline predictivity of MRI in postmarketing studies are very few and based on the post hoc subgroup analysis. As far as we know, there are no data on the predictive value of neurophysiological techniques for treatment response, except our unpublished observation that patients with multiple abnormalities of evoked potentials show a significantly lower response to injectable treatments. In patients with CIS, all the MRI studies failed to reveal a significant predictor of the treatment response [79–82]. There was a trend in all clinical trials performed in CIS for a better response in patients with low T2 lesion load at entry, no other clear signals with predictive value were observed. In a postmarketing study, it has been shown that the presence of gadolinium-enhancing lesions at baseline predicts with an odds ratio 4.7 a poor response to interferon b treatment [83]. A recent meta-analysis of six large randomized clinical trials exploring the efficacy of natalizumab, dymethilfumarate, teriflunomide and fingolimod showed that in relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), higher treatment effects are associated with higher gadolinium activity, lower age and lower disability [84]. Prosperini et al. [85] reported that patients treated with natalizumab with fewer pretreatment relapses or lower EDSS are more likely to be disease free after 2 years of treatment. In another study of a small cohort of patients who started natalizumab treatment, the risk of relapse during treatment was associated with a higher disease activity in the year before starting treatment [86]. In patients who discontinue natalizumab, the early disease reactivation was predicted by the presence of a high clinical or MRI disease activity in the year before the initiation of the natalizumab treatment [87& ,88].


Early identification of patients with a suboptimal response to a DMT would allow a prompt switch to an alternative treatment that could eventually have better efficacy. Several studies have tried to identify clinical and MRI predictors of treatment response to interferons in the initial period of treatment to prevent accumulation of disability [83,89–93]. Interestingly enough, when in a placebo controlled study the presence of disease activity in the first 2 years was examined as a predictor of a long-term disability, a significant effect was observed in interferon b patients and not in the placebo patients, indicating it is the persistence of disease activity despite DMT that determines the predictivity [94]. Rio et al. [95] proposed a scored system based on the combined assessment at 1 year of clinical relapses and disability progression as measured by EDSS. This score has been subsequently validated. A modified Rio score characterized, compared with the old score, by a higher specificity and a lower sensitivity has also been proposed and validated [96–98]. More recently, the Rio score has also been applied to a population of patients treated with Glatiramer Acetate, revealing the same predictivity values [98–100]. Prosperini [101] examined the different thresholds for the definition of treatment failure and found that the presence of one enhancing lesion or two or more new T2 lesions, independently from the clinical activity, was an appropriate compromise between sensitivity and specificity. A very recent study based on a large multicenter clinical dataset collected within MAGNIMS network, including RRMS patients on interferon b treatment with clinical and brain MRI assessment during the first year of treatment and followed for at least 2 years, revealed that the risk of disability progression significantly increased with one relapse and at least three new T2 MRI lesions [102&&]. The 3 years risk of disability progression increased from 17% in patients without relapses and less than three new T2 lesions, to 48% for patients with both conditions. However, it should be noticed that using this threshold, only 6% of patients with disability progression after 3 years of follow-up were classified in the first year of treatment as patients with a bad prognosis. Clearly, this threshold cannot be used to take treatment decisions early during the monitoring of treatment response. There are some evidences that adding brain volume measures to clinical and MRI disease activity measures may increase the value of prediction [103,104]. A meta-analysis aiming at establishing the relevance of MRI markers in predicting a higher risk of treatment failure failed to combine some of the published studies in a quantitative summary estimate, because of the large heterogeneity in both measured markers and outcome assessments [105].



Because of the complexity of multiple sclerosis, not only the natural history of the disease displays a large interindividual variability, but also the response to the treatments in RRMS is largely unpredictable. From the theoretical point of view, we can hypothesize that two main factors contribute to this variability: the interindividual variability of disease severity and activity, already discussed in the previous sections; and a variable propensity of a given patient to respond to a specific treatment. Because the available DMTs display multiple and at least partially different mechanisms of action, we could expect to see patients not responding to treatment A to be fully responsive to treatment B. The aim of a DMT for relapsing multiple sclerosis is to reach the condition of no evidence of disease activity, however, about a quarter of patients fail to first treatment in the first 2 years, and the vast majority fails in a long-term observation. Because the possibility to predict the response before starting a treatment is still quite modest, we should concentrate on an early detection of nonresponders to achieve a better control of the disease evolution. From this point of view, there are convincing evidences that conventional MRI and, to a minor extent, a combined use of evoked potentials may provide important information. Major improvements may arise by the use of nonconventional MRI techniques, by further ameliorations of atrophy measures and by more extended and appropriate use of neurophysiological techniques. A general criticism to the published studies is that sensitivity of the biomarker is more important than specificity, particularly in the initial phases of the disease, because the aim of an early monitoring of treatment response is to pick up patients at increased risk of treatment failure. Further, well-performed and methodologically strong multicenter studies need to be performed in the near future to provide the clinician with easy to use and very informative biomarkers.





Financial support and sponsorship



Conflicts of interest

L.L. received compensation for consulting services and/or speaking activity from Biogen Idec and Novartis, Excemed, receives research support from the Jacques and Gloria Gossweiler Foundation (Switzerland), Fondazione Italiana Sclerosi Multipla. M.A.R. received speakers honoraria from Biogen Idec, Novartis, Genzyme, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and receives research support from the Italian Ministry of Health and Fondazione Italiana Sclerosi Multipla. G.C. serves and has served on scientific advisory boards for Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Novartis, Sanofi, Genzyme, Merck Serono, Excemed, Roche, Almirall, Chugai, Receptos, Forward Pharma; has received compensation for consulting services and/or speaking activities from Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Novartis, Sanofi, Genzyme, Merck Serono, Biogen Idec, Excemed, Roche, Almirall, Receptos; and receives research support from the Italian Ministry of Health, the Jacques and Gloria Gossweiler Foundation (Switzerland) and ARiSLA (Fondazione Italiana di Ricerca per la SLA).


Papers of particular interest, published within the annual period of review, have been highlighted as: & of special interest && of outstanding interest

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