MRI Technique Used to Detect Early Signs of Multiple Sclerosis

An innovative study at Robarts Research Institute provides early evidence that hospital MRI scanners can be used to detect distinct brain cell abnormalities that are predictors of multiple sclerosis (MS).

In a preclinical study in rats with a disease similar to the human form, Robarts scientist Dr. Paula Foster used an injection of nano-particles of iron oxide, which exhibit magnetic qualities and can be detected by an MRI scanner.

During the acute inflammatory phase of the disease, these particles were then picked up by circulating inflammatory cells (leukocytes) that went on to infiltrate brain tissue and cause abnormalities called perivascular cuffs.

These abnormalities — seen in this study for the first time using MRI — can be used to predict the occurrence of multiple sclerosis (MS) lesions. The results of the study, co-authored by Ayman Oweida and Beth Dunn, are featured on the cover of the latest issue of the scientific journal Molecular Imaging.

“Our collaborative research projects in molecular imaging at Robarts — in traumatic spinal cord injury, diabetes, tumor cell tracking and MS — are yielding very promising results,” said Dr. Foster, whose study used a novel micro-imaging system fitted to the MRI scanner at London Health Sciences Centre that was developed and built in collaboration with Dr. Brian Rutt, also a Robarts scientist, and colleague Andrew Alejski, an electrical engineer. “The ultimate goal of this work is to be able to give clinicians new ways to see and treat disease at the earliest possible stage.”

Molecular imaging, a branch of “nano-medicine”, is an emerging field that aims to advance understanding in biology and medicine by capturing non-invasive images of important cellular and molecular events during the onset, progression and treatment of disease. Last year, Drs. Foster and Rutt, published the first evidence that individual cells could be detected using 1.5 Tesla MRI scanners, which are found in thousands of hospitals around the world.

Although molecular imaging is in its formative stages (this September, for example, marks only the 3rd annual meeting of the Society for Molecular Imaging), targeting molecular processes will allow earlier detection and characterization of disease, direct assessment of treatment effects and better understanding of disease processes in living tissues. This represents a profound shift in the overall purpose of medical imaging, to provide more of physiological and functional information vs. the conventional “structural-anatomic” approach practiced by radiologists.

“It is an exciting thought to consider the imaging and detection of ‘pre-disease’ states at a time when intervention may provide more effective therapy,” said Dr. Foster, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Biophysics at The University of Western Ontario.

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