White matter tracts, which play a crucial role in the coordination of information flow between different regions of grey matter, are particularly vulnerable to multiple sclerosis. Many studies have shown that the white matter lesions in multiple sclerosis are associated with focal abnormalities of grey matter, but little is known about the alterations in the coordinated patterns of cortical morphology among regions in the disease. Here, we used cortical thickness measurements from structural magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the relationship between the white matter lesion load and the topological efficiency of structural cortical networks in multiple sclerosis. Network efficiency was defined using a ‘small-world’ network model that quantifies the effectiveness of information transfer within brain networks. In this study, we first classified patients (n = 330) into six subgroups according to their total white matter lesion loads, and identified structural brain networks for each multiple sclerosis group by thresholding the corresponding inter-regional cortical thickness correlation matrix, followed by a network efficiency analysis with graph theoretical approaches. The structural cortical networks in multiple sclerosis demonstrated efficient small-world architecture regardless of the lesion load, an organization that maximizes the information processing at a relatively low wiring cost. However, we found that the overall small-world network efficiency in multiple sclerosis was significantly disrupted in a manner proportional to the extent of total white matter lesions. Moreover, regional efficiency was also significantly decreased in specific brain regions, including the insula and precentral gyrus as well as regions of prefrontal and temporal association cortices. Finally, we showed that the lesions also altered many cortical thickness correlations in the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes. Our results suggest that the white matter lesions in multiple sclerosis might be associated with aberrant neuronal connectivity among widely distributed brain regions, and provide structural (morphological) evidence for the notion of multiple sclerosis as a disconnection syndrome.
Keywords: cortical thickness, connectivity, MRI, multiple sclerosis, small-world networks