Axonal damage in the optic radiation assessed by white matter tract integrity metrics is associated with retinal thinning in multiple sclerosis

Chanon Ngamsombat, Qiyuan Tian, Qiuyun Fan, Andrew Russo, Natalya Machado, Maya Polackal, Ilena C. George, Thomas Witzel, Eric C. Klawiter, Susie Y. Huang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Introduction: White matter damage in the visual pathway is common in multiple sclerosis (MS) and is associated with retinal thinning, although the underlying mechanism of association remains unclear. The goal of this work was to evaluate the presence and extent of white matter tract integrity (WMTI) alterations in the optic radiation (OR) in people with MS and to investigate the association between WMTI metrics and retinal thinning in the eyes of MS patients without a history of optic neuritis (ON) as measured by optical coherence tomography (OCT). We hypothesized that WMTI metrics would reflect axonal damage that occurs in the OR in MS, and that axonal alterations revealed by WMTI would be associated with retinal thinning. Methods: Twenty-nine MS patients without previous ON in at least one eye and twenty-nine age-matched healthy controls (HC) were scanned on a dedicated high-gradient 3-Tesla MRI scanner with 300 mT/m maximum gradient strength using a multi-shell diffusion MRI protocol (b = 800, 1500, 2400 s/mm2). The patients were divided into two subgroups according to history without ON (N = 18) or with ON in one eye (N = 11). Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) metrics and WMTI metrics derived from diffusion kurtosis imaging were assessed in normal-appearing white matter (NAWM) of the OR and in focal lesions. Retinal thickness in the eyes of MS patients was measured by OCT. Student's t-test was used to assess group differences between MRI metrics. Linear regression was used to study the relationship between OCT metrics, including retinal nerve fiber layer (RNFL) and combined ganglion cell and inner plexiform layer thickness (GCL/IPL), visual acuity measures and DTI and WMTI metrics. Results: OR NAWM in MS showed significantly decreased axonal water fraction (AWF) compared to HC (0.36 vs 0.39, p < 0.001), with similar trends observed in AWF of lesions compared to NAWM (0.27 vs 0.36, p < 0.001). Fractional anisotropy (FA) was lower in OR NAWM of MS patients compared to HC (0.49 vs 0.52, p < 0.001). In patients without ON, AWF was the only diffusion MRI metric that was significantly associated with average RNFL (r = 0.68, p = 0.005), adjusting for age, sex and disease duration and correcting for multiple comparisons. Of all the DTI and WMTI metrics, AWF was the strongest and most significant predictor of average RNFL thickness in MS patients without ON. There was no significant correlation between visual acuity scores and DTI or WMTI metrics after correction for multiple comparisons. Conclusion: Axonal damage may be the substrate of previously observed DTI alterations in the OR, as supported by the significant reduction in AWF within both NAWM and lesions of the OR in MS. Our results support the concept that axonal damage is widespread throughout the visual pathway in MS and may be mediated through trans-synaptic degeneration.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102293
JournalNeuroImage: Clinical
StatePublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Diffusion tractography
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Optic radiation
  • Optical coherence tomography
  • Retinal thinning
  • White matter tract integrity


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