Home - National Multiple Sclerosis Society

Skip to navigation Skip to content

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

From The MS Information Sourcebook, produced by the National MS Society.

The magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is the diagnostic tool that currently offers the most sensitive non-invasive way of imaging the brain, spinal cord, or other areas of the body. It is the preferred method of imaging to help establish a diagnosis of MS and to monitor the course of the disease. Prior to the advent of this technology, there was no way to evaluate the disease process except by looking at a person's clinical symptoms. The MRI has made it possible to visualize and understand much more about the underlying pathology of the disease.

How the MRI Works
Unlike a CAT scan or conventional X-ray, this type of scanning device does not use radiation. Instead, it uses a powerful magnetic field that makes the hydrogen protons in water molecules line up. Once lined up, they are then knocked out of line by radio waves. When the radio waves are stopped, the protons relax back into line, releasing resonance signals that are transmitted to a computer. The various types of scans that are used-most commonly the T1-weighted scan and the T2-weighted scan-measure this relaxation time differently. Computer programs translate these data into cross-sectional pictures of the water in human tissue.

The layer of myelin that protects nerve-cell fibers is fatty and therefore repels water. In the areas where the myelin has been damaged by MS, the fat is stripped away. With the fat gone, the area holds more water, and shows up on an MRI scan as either a bright white spot or a darkened area depending on the type of scan that is used. A contrast agent, gadolinium (gd) can be injected into a patient intravenously to further enhance the sensitivity of the T1-weighted MRI scan.

What the MRI is Used to Measure
A gd-enhanced T1-weighted MRI scan supplies information about disease activity by highlighting areas of inflammation indicative of a breakdown in the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier is a is a cell layer around blood vessels in the brain and spinal cord that prevents damaging substances from passing out of the blood stream into the central nervous system. These areas of inflammation appear as active lesions-meaning that they are new, or getting bigger. T1-weighted images also show "black holes," which are thought to indicate areas of permanent axonal damage. T2-weighed MRI scans are used to provide information about disease burden or lesion load (defined as the told number of lesions). Although other types of scans are used for research purposes, these are the ones most commonly used in clinical care.

  • Diagnosis
    Because MRI is particularly useful in detecting central nervous system demyelination, it is a powerful tool in helping to establish the diagnosis of MS. It should be remembered, however, that approximately 5% of patients with clinically definite MS do not show lesions on MRI, and the absence of demyelination on MRI does not rule out MS. Also, since many lesions seen on MRI may be in so-called "silent" areas of the brain, it is not always possible to make a specific correlation between what is seen on the MRI scan and the patient's clinical signs and symptoms. In addition, with advancing age (probably over age 50), there are often small areas seen on MRI in healthy people that resemble MS but are actually related to the aging process, and are of no clinical significance.
  • Clinically-isolated Syndrome
    MRI is particularly helpful in patients who have had a single demyelinating attack that is suggestive of MS, also called a clinically-isolated syndrome. The number of lesions on an initial MRI of the brain (or spinal cord) can help the clinician assess the patient's risk of developing a second attack (and therefore "clinically-definite MS") in the future. Some of the treatments for MS have been shown to delay the occurrence of a second episode of demyelination in patients who have had only one.
  • Disease Progression and Prognosis
    Once a positive diagnosis of MS has been establish ed, there is no reason why an MS patient should have further diagnostic MRI scans. Subsequent scans, however, have been shown to be useful in tracking the progress of the disease, or possibly helping to establish a prognosis-a prediction of the course of a disease. For example, researchers have demonstrated that the degree of cognitive impairment as demonstrated by neuropsychologic testing can be correlated with the total amount of demyelination seen in certain areas of the brain on MRI.

See also...


Society Web Resources




Last updated March 2006