Brain imaging may detect early biomarkers for ALS, review suggests

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques may detect biomarkers for early diagnosis in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), according to a review study from the University of Lille in France, titled “The value of magnetic resonance imaging as a biomarker for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: a systematic review” and published in BMC Neurology.

Biomarkers are measurable substances, such as chemical changes in the blood or changes in tissues, which can be linked to a specific disease. They can also be used to follow the progression of a disease and are important tools to recognize whether a drug is working.

ALS is hard to detect in its early stages and it currently takes about a year to diagnose a person with the disease. In addition, the evaluation of the effectiveness of a treatment is based only on the ALS functional rating scale, different motor tests, and survival time. But these are all late-stage measures.

There is an urgent need for early detection of ALS. A promising approach to search for specific biomarkers and early detection of the illness may be through MRI techniques.

MRI is an umbrella term that includes many different scanning techniques which can be used for studying ALS-related changes in the brain and spinal cord. In this review, researchers went through 116 different MRI studies that investigated ALS patients. The team searched for connections between MRI abnormalities and clinical scores of the ALS functional rating scale.

The most disease-specific changes were atrophy — a breakdown of tissue — in the motor (movement) area of the brain, and especially along the corticospinal tract (CST). The CST is like a neuron pathway that conducts impulses from the brain to the muscles.  The patients with more severe atrophy also had more severe clinical symptoms, connecting the MRI findings with the scores of the ALS functional rating scale.

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