Thalamic Injury and Cognition in Multiple Sclerosis

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Multiple sclerosis (MS) produces demyelination and degeneration in both gray and white matter. Both cortical and deep gray matter injury is observed during the course of MS. Among deep gray matter structures, the thalamus has received special attention, as it undergoes volume loss in different MS subtypes and is involved in the earliest form of the disease, radiologically isolated syndrome. The thalamus plays an important role as an information relay center, and involvement of the thalamus in MS has been associated with a variety of clinical manifestations in MS, including fatigue, movement disorders, pain, and cognitive impairment (CI). Similar to thalamic volume loss, CI is seen from the earliest stages of MS and is potentially one of the most debilitating manifestations of the disease. The thalamus, particularly the dorsomedial nucleus as part of the basolateral limbic circuit and anterior thalamic nuclei through connections with the prefrontal cortex, has been shown to be involved in CI. Specifically, several cognitive performance measures such as processing speed and memory correlate with thalamic volume. Thalamic atrophy is one of the most important predictors of CI in MS, and both thalamic volume, diffusion tensor imaging measures, and functional activation correlate with the degree of CI in MS. Although the exact mechanism of thalamic atrophy is not well-understood, it is hypothesized to be secondary to degeneration following white matter injury resulting in secondary neurodegeneration and neuronal loss. The thalamus may represent an ideal biomarker for studies aiming to test neuroprotective or restorative therapies aimed at cognition.

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