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New Brain Scan Uncovers Secret in Multiple Sclerosis

brain scan and multiple sclerosis

It appears that shades of gray matter in the brain, particularly in people who have multiple sclerosis. Scientists have used a new brain scan technique to uncover a surprising and important feature that impacts the severity of the disease.


The new brain scan technique is called macromolecular proton fraction (MPF) mapping, and it is a type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A team of researchers at the University of Washington found that modifying the software used with an MRI scanner resulted in their being able to see the amount of the protective covering (myelin) on the nerve fibers in the gray matter of the brain of people with multiple sclerosis.

Why is this important? Previously, scientists believed that multiple sclerosis was characterized by damage to the myelin in the brain’s white matter only. The white matter is so called because of the large amount of myelin that covers the nerve fibers.

Although gray matter is made up largely of factors that do not have any myelin, a limited number of cell bodies in this brain component do. Now, this new scanning technique has allowed scientists to see damage to the myelin in the gray matter. No other methods are currently available to view this damage in gray matter.

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The brain scan study
Thirty individuals with multiple sclerosis (18 with relapsing-remitting MS and 12 with secondary progressive MS—were evaluated by a research team at the University of Washington using the MPF scanning technique. Fourteen healthy volunteers served as controls. Here’s what the authors saw:

  • MPF was much lower in both the white and gray matter in patients with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis than it was in controls
  • MPF also was much lower in lesions and normal-appearing brain tissues of patients with secondary progressive MS than in individuals with relapsing-remitting MS
  • The amount of MPF in the brain correlates closely with a person’s level of clinical disability and the strongest relationships were seen in the gray matter

Why this study is important
This new information about the damage to myelin in gray matter may help scientists better develop novel treatments and provide a unique way to measure the success of treatment. In addition, one of the study’s authors, Dr. Vasily L. Yarnykh, associate professor of radiology, noted that the ability to evaluate “both gray and white matter damage with this method may become an individual patient management tool in the future.”

Read about a new drug that may reverse MS damage

Yarnykh VL et al. Fast whole-brain three-dimensional macromolecular proton fraction mapping in multiple sclerosis. Radiology 2014 Sept online