Sensitivity of brain MRI and neurological examination for detection of upper motor neurone degeneration in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis


To investigate sensitivity of brain MRI and neurological examination for detection of upper motor neuron (UMN) degeneration in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).


We studied 192 patients with ALS and 314 controls longitudinally. All patients visited our centre twice and underwent full neurological examination and brain MRI. At each visit, we assessed UMN degeneration by measuring motor cortex thickness (CT) and pyramidal tract fibre density (FD) corresponding to five body regions (bulbar region and limbs). For each body region, we measured degree of clinical UMN and lower motor neuron (LMN) symptom burden using a validated scoring system.


We found deterioration over time of CT of motor regions (p≤0.0081) and progression of UMN signs of bulbar region and left arm (p≤0.04). FD was discriminative between controls and patients with moderate/severe UMN signs (all regions, p≤0.034), but did not change longitudinally. Higher clinical UMN burden correlated with reduced CT, but not lower FD, for the bulbar region (p=2.2x10–10) and legs (p≤0.025). In the arms, we found that severe LMN signs may reduce the detectability of UMN signs (p≤0.043). With MRI, UMN degeneration was detectable before UMN signs became clinically evident (CT: p=1.1x10–10, FD: p=6.3x10–4). Motor CT, but not FD, deteriorated more than UMN signs during the study period.


Motor CT is a more sensitive measure of UMN degeneration than UMN signs. Motor CT and pyramidal tract FD are discriminative between patients and controls. Brain MRI can monitor UMN degeneration before signs become clinically evident. These findings promote MRI as a potential biomarker for UMN progression in clinical trials in ALS.

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