New research published today in Brain states that early MRI scans of people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) could predict how their condition will progress, including how disabled they are likely to become.

The MS Society funded study followed 164 people with clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) over a 15 year period. Monitoring how MS developed, researchers discovered that MRI scans from when individuals were first diagnosed contained signs of future progression. For example, early spinal cord damage indicated people were much more likely to go on to develop the secondary progressive form of MS, which currently has no treatment and is where disability gets steadily worse.

A spinal cord MRI indicated the level of disability a person was likely to face in future. Researchers also found an association between lesions seen in the brain at the time of CIS, and a person’s physical and cognitive performance later in life. The study was led by Dr Wallace Brownlee and MS Society Scientific Ambassador Professor Olga Ciccarelli.

“By identifying key factors that appear very early on and indicate how someone’s MS might develop, this study has proved crucial,” says Susan Kohlhaas, director of esearch at the MS Society. “We’re pleased to have funded the work and look forward to seeing it progress so people living with MS can finally have more certainty about the future.”

Over 100,000 people live with MS in the UK, and one of the most difficult things about being diagnosed is the uncertainty of the condition. The course MS takes is highly variable with significant differences in terms of how quickly it progresses, how disabled a person may become, and how cognitive performance is affected.

“We already use MRI scans to diagnose MS and to monitor the course of the disease, said Brownlee. “These findings – which suggest existing measures, routinely available in clinical practice, can provide a long-term prognosis – are a major advance that will be welcomed by many in the MS community.”