Background. Reliable prognostic factors are lacking for multiple sclerosis (MS). Gadolinium enhancement in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain detects with high sensitivity disturbance of the blood-brain barrier, an early event in the development of inflammatory lesions in MS. To investigate the prognostic value of gadolinium-enhanced MRI, we did a meta-analysis of longitudinal MRI studies. Methods. From the members of MAGNIMS (European Magnetic Resonance Network in Multiple Sclerosis) and additional centres in the USA, we collected data from five natural-course studies and four placebo groups of clinical trials completed between 1992 and 1995. We included a total of 307 patients, 237 with relapsing disease course and 70 with secondary progressive disease course. We investigated by regression analysis the relation between initial count of gadolinium-enhancing lesions and subsequent worsening of disability or impairment as measured by the expanded disability status scale (EDSS) and relapse rate. Findings. The relapse rate in the first year was predicted with moderate ability by the mean number of gadolinium-enhancing lesions in monthly scans during the first 6 months (relative risk per five lesions 1.13, p = 0.023). The predictive value of the number of gadolinium-enhancing lesions in one baseline scan was less strong. The best predictor for relapse rate was the variation (SD) of lesion counts in the first six monthly scans which allowed an estimate of relapse in the first year (relative risk 1.2, p = 0.020) and in the second year (risk ratio = 1.59 p = 0.10). Neither the initial scan nor monthly scans over six months were predictive of change in the EDSS in the subsequent 12 months or 24 months. The mean of gadolinium-enhancing-lesion counts in the first six monthly scans was weakly predictive of EDSS change after 1 year (odds ratio = 1.34, p = 0.082) and 2 years (odds ratio = 1.65, p = 0.049). Interpretation. Although disturbance of the blood-brain barrier as shown by gadolinium enhancement in MRI is a predictor of the occurrence of relapses, it is not a strong predictor of the development of cumulative impairment or disability. This discrepancy supports the idea that variant pathogenetic mechanisms are operative in the occurrence of relapses and in the development of long-term disability in MS.
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