Axonal degeneration as substrate of fractional anisotropy abnormalities in multiple sclerosis cortex

Paolo Preziosa, Svenja Kiljan, Martijn D. Steenwijk, Alessandro Meani, Wilma D. J. van de Berg, Geert J. Schenk, Maria A. Rocca, Massimo Filippi, Jeroen J. G. Geurts, Laura E. Jonkman

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Cortical microstructural abnormalities are associated with clinical and cognitive deterioration in multiple sclerosis. Using diffusion tensor MRI, a higher fractional anisotropy has been found in cortical lesions versus normal-appearing cortex in multiple sclerosis. The pathological substrates of this finding have yet to be definitively elucidated. By performing a combined post-mortem diffusion tensor MRI and histopathology study, we aimed to define the histopathological substrates of diffusivity abnormalities in multiple sclerosis cortex. Sixteen subjects with multiple sclerosis and 10 age- and sex-matched non-neurological control donors underwent post-mortem in situ at 3T MRI, followed by brain dissection. One hundred and ten paraffin-embedded tissue blocks (54 from multiple sclerosis patients, 56 from non-neurological controls) were matched to the diffusion tensor sequence to obtain regional diffusivity measures. Using immunohistochemistry and silver staining, cortical density of myelin, microglia, astrocytes and axons, and density and volume of neurons and glial cells were evaluated. Correlates of diffusivity abnormalities with histological markers were assessed through linear mixed-effects models. Cortical lesions (77% subpial) were found in 27/54 (50%) multiple sclerosis cortical regions. Multiple sclerosis normal-appearing cortex had a significantly lower fractional anisotropy compared to cortex from non-neurological controls (P = 0.047), whereas fractional anisotropy in demyelinated cortex was significantly higher than in multiple sclerosis normal-appearing cortex (P = 0.012) but not different from non-neurological control cortex (P = 0.420). Compared to non-neurological control cortex, both multiple sclerosis normal-appearing and demyelinated cortices showed a lower density of axons perpendicular to the cortical surface (P= 0.012 for both) and of total axons (parallel and perpendicular to cortical surface) (P= 0.028 and 0.012). In multiple sclerosis, demyelinated cortex had a lower density of myelin (P= 0.004), parallel (P= 0.018) and total axons (P= 0.029) versus normal-appearing cortex. Regarding the pathological substrate, in non-neurological controls, cortical fractional anisotropy was positively associated with density of perpendicular, parallel, and total axons (P = 0.031 for all). In multiple sclerosis, normal-appearing cortex fractional anisotropy was positively associated with perpendicular and total axon density (P= 0.031 for both), while associations with myelin, glial and total cells and parallel axons did not survive multiple comparison correction. Demyelinated cortex fractional anisotropy was positively associated with density of neurons, and total cells and negatively with microglia density, without surviving multiple comparison correction. Our results suggest that a reduction of perpendicular axons in normal-appearing cortex and of both perpendicular and parallel axons in demyelinated cortex may underlie the substrate influencing cortical microstructural coherence and being responsible for the different patterns of fractional anisotropy changes occurring in multiple sclerosis cortex.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1921-1937
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019


  • cortical lesions
  • diffusion tensor MRI
  • histopathology
  • multiple sclerosis
  • neurodegeneration

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