Background: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neuromuscular disease characterized by both upper and lower motor neuron degeneration. While neuroimaging studies of the brain can detect upper motor neuron degeneration, these brain MRI scans also include the upper part of the cervical spinal cord, which offers the possibility to expand the focus also towards lower motor neuron degeneration. Here, we set out to investigate cross-sectional and longitudinal disease effects in the upper cervical spinal cord in patients with ALS, progressive muscular atrophy (PMA: primarily lower motor neuron involvement) and primary lateral sclerosis (PLS: primarily upper motor neuron involvement), and their relation to disease severity and grey and white matter brain measurements. Methods: We enrolled 108 ALS patients without C9orf72 repeat expansion (ALS C9–), 26 ALS patients with C9orf72 repeat expansion (ALS C9+), 28 PLS patients, 56 PMA patients and 114 controls. During up to five visits, longitudinal T1-weighted brain MRI data were acquired and used to segment the upper cervical spinal cord (UCSC, up to C3) and individual cervical segments (C1 to C4) to calculate cross-sectional areas (CSA). Using linear (mixed-effects) models, the CSA differences were assessed between groups and correlated with disease severity. Furthermore, a relationship between CSA and brain measurements was examined in terms of cortical thickness of the precentral gyrus and white matter integrity of the corticospinal tract. Results: Compared to controls, CSAs at baseline showed significantly thinner UCSC in all groups in the MND spectrum. Over time, ALS C9– patients demonstrated significant thinning of the UCSC and, more specifically, of segment C3 compared to controls. Progressive thinning over time was also observed in C1 of PMA patients, while ALS C9+ and PLS patients did not show any longitudinal changes. Longitudinal spinal cord measurements showed a significant relationship with disease severity and we found a significant correlation between spinal cord and motor cortex thickness or corticospinal tract integrity for PLS and PMA, but not for ALS patients. Discussion: Our findings demonstrate atrophy of the upper cervical spinal cord in the motor neuron disease spectrum, which was progressive over time for all but PLS patients. Cervical spinal cord imaging in ALS seems to capture different disease effects than brain neuroimaging. Atrophy of the cervical spinal cord is therefore a promising additional biomarker for both diagnosis and disease progression and could help in the monitoring of treatment effects in future clinical trials.
van der Burgh, H. K., Westeneng, H-J., Meier, J. M., van Es, M. A., Veldink, J. H., Hendrikse, J., ... van den Berg, L. H. (2019). Cross-sectional and longitudinal assessment of the upper cervical spinal cord in motor neuron disease. NeuroImage: Clinical, 24, . https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2019.101984