Medical researchers at the University of Alberta have discovered a new way to track the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS) in those living with the disease, by using a powerful, triple strength MRI to track increasing levels of iron found in brain tissue.
The researchers discovered that iron levels in MS patients are increasing in grey matter areas of the brain that are responsible for relaying messages. High iron levels in a specific "relay area" were noted in patients who had physical disabilities associated with MS. Iron is very important for normal function of the brain and the amount of iron is a tightly controlled system by the brain tissue. The discovery suggests there is a problem with the control system. Too much iron can be toxic to brain cells and high levels of iron in the brain have been associated with various neurodegenerative diseases. But to date, no tests have been able to quantify or measure iron in living brain.
Alan Wilman and Gregg Blevins, co-principal investigators from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, used a new MRI method to quantitatively measure iron in the brain to gain a better understanding of what the disease is doing in the brains of those who were recently diagnosed with MS. Twenty-two people with MS took part in the study, along with 22 people who did not have the condition.
"In MS, there is a real desire and need to get a good idea of the state and progression of the disease," says Blevins, who is both a practising neurologist and a researcher from the Division of Neurology.
"When patients with MS currently get an MRI, the typical measures we look at may not give us a good idea of the nature and state of MS. Using this new MRI method would give physicians a new way to measure the effectiveness of new treatments for patients with MS by watching the impact on iron levels. This opens up the idea of having a new biomarker, a new way of looking at the disease over time, watching the disease, seeing the progression or lack of progression of the disease, a new way to track it."
Wilman, a researcher and physicist in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, says the new MRI method may be a better gauge for disease progression than strictly looking at number and frequency of relapses.