Magnetic resonance imaging measures have been proposed as objective markers to study upper motor neuron loss in motor neuron disorders. Cross-sectional studies have identified imaging differences between groups of healthy controls and patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or primary lateral sclerosis (PLS) that correlate with disease severity, but it is not known whether imaging measures change as disease progresses. Additionally, whether imaging measures change in a similar fashion with disease progression in PLS and ALS is unclear. To address these questions, clinical and imaging evaluations were first carried out in a prospective cross-sectional study of 23 ALS and 22 PLS patients with similar motor impairment and 19 age-matched healthy controls. Clinical evaluations consisted of a neurological examination, the ALS Functional rating scale-revised, and measures of finger tapping, gait, and timed speech. Age and ALSFRS score were not different, but PLS patients had longer duration of symptoms. Imaging measures examined were cortical thickness, regional brain volumes, and diffusion tensor imaging of the corticospinal tract and callosum. Imaging measures that differed from controls in a cross-sectional vertex-wise analysis were used as regions of interest for longitudinal analysis, which was carried out in 9 of the ALS patients (interval 1.26 ± 0.72 years) and 12 PLS patients (interval 2.08 ± 0.93 years). In the cross-sectional study both groups had areas of cortical thinning, which was more extensive in motor regions in PLS patients. At follow-up, clinical measures declined more in ALS than PLS patients. Cortical thinning and grey matter volume loss of the precentral gyri progressed over the follow-up interval. Fractional anisotropy of the corticospinal tracts remained stable, but the cross-sectional area declined in ALS patients. Changes in clinical measures correlated with changes in precentral cortical thickness and grey matter volume. The rate of cortical thinning was greater in ALS patients with shorter disease durations, suggesting that thickness decreases in a non-linear fashion. Thus, cortical thickness changes are a potential imaging marker for disease progression in individual patients, but the magnitude of change likely depends on disease duration and progression rate. Differences between PLS and ALS patients in the magnitude of thinning in cross-sectional studies are likely to reflect longer disease duration. We conclude that there is an evolution of structural imaging changes with disease progression in motor neuron disorders. Some changes, such as diffusion properties of the corticospinal tract, occur early while cortical thinning and volume loss occur later.
► In a cross-sectional study, ALS and PLS patients had thinning of the motor cortex compared to age-matched controls ► Progressive thinning and atrophy of the precentral gyrus were correlated with clinical progression over a 1- or 2-year longitudinal follow-up ► The rate of cortical thinning was faster in ALS patients with a shorter disease duration ► Fractional anisotropy of corticospinal tracts, though reduced at baseline in ALS and PLS patients remained stable over longitudinal follow-up ► Imaging changes evolve with disease progression in motor neuron disorders ► Changes in white matter diffusion properties occur early, while cortical thinning and atrophy occur later and over a longer time frame