The study performed follow-up scans on patients at six months, one year and two years. It found that decreases in the size of the thalamus were independently associated with the development of clinically definite MS, along with an increased volume in another part of the brain known as the lateral ventricles.
The findings suggest shrinkage of the thalamus could become a biomarker for MS because it's detectable at a very early stage, Zivadinov said.
"What's triggering this and how it's connected with the thalamus should be explored," he said, "but ... that this research is indicating that the thalamus is profoundly affected so early on leads us to focus more on those regions of the brain."
Dr. Gary Birnbaum, director of the MS Treatment and Research Center at the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology, said he thinks the study highlights the concept that MS is a combination of inflammatory and degenerative processes.
But Birnbaum, who was not involved with the study, said measuring the size of the thalamus on special MRI scans is more complex than what is possible with traditional scans. He said this new finding needs to be confirmed before being useful in clinical MS diagnoses.
"The [thalamic] measurement ... may become a very valuable tool in terms of measuring the effectiveness of new therapies," he said. "But in terms of the day-to-day practice of a neurologist trying to figure out if a person has MS, at this particular time it's perhaps not as valuable as measuring new lesions."
To learn more about MS, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
SOURCES: Robert Zivadinov, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director, Buffalo Neuroimaging Analysis Center, University of Buffalo, New York; Gary Birnbau
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