MedUni Vienna: 7-Tesla MRI scanner supports research into multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, inflammatory condition of the central nervous system, the cause of which is still not yet fully understood.

MS is also known as the “disease with many faces.” The progression of the disease is hard to predict in each individual. As a result, scientists are on the look-out for markers that will help to understand the condition better and therefore detect any advances in the disease earlier. According to the Austrian Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are around 12,500 people in Austria who suffer with MS. At the MedUni Vienna, a map of the veins in the brain has now been produced using a 7-Tesla magnetic resonance imaging scanner which could be helpful in researching diseases of the brain.

As part of a multi-disciplinary pilot project carried out by the University Departments of Neurology, Radiology and Nuclear Medicine and the Centre for Brain Research, scientists are using high-resolution, susceptibility-weighted imaging (SWI) at 7 Tesla to investigate focal areas of inflammation in the brains of patients with multiple sclerosis. This blood oxygen-dependent imaging method particularly allows veins and iron deposits to be visualised. During this collaboration, a map of the veins in the brain has been produced at the MedUni Vienna that could be useful for understanding various types of disease, including brain tumours, for example.

“The data we have obtained so far indicates a significantly higher proportion of SWI-detectable veins in focal regions of MS inflammation than in the normal-looking, surrounding white matter in the brain”, explains Assunta Dal-Bianco from the University Department of Neurology at the MedUni Vienna. The reason for this is not yet clear, however. It also appears that the visible proportion of veins in the focal regions of inflammation remains constant over three years.

Iron appears to play an important role in MS
One highly promising marker for the progression of multiple sclerosis may be iron-containing macrophage margins that surround some focal areas of inflammation. These scavenger cells, known as macrophages, absorb iron following the destruction of the main target of attack, the myelin sheath. As soon as the iron is released from the “scavenger cells” as free radicals back into the tissue, there is further tissue damage. “The provisional 3-year data from the high-resolution 7-Tesla imaging indicates that regions of inflammation that are surrounded by an iron ring are larger and grow faster,” says Dal-Bianco. “The high-resolution insight into MS lesions helps us to understand the disease better and may subsequently lead to improved treatment management or new approaches to treatment.”

“Advances in technology in recent years mean that we are now able to visualise even tiny structures in the patient's brain much more clearly and, in association with the Centre for Brain Research, correlate these with pathohistological knowledge and interpret their significance,” adds Günther Grabner from the University Department of Radiology and Nuclear Medicine, who was also involved in the development of the vein map. The 3D vein map allows the images of veins in regions of inflammation to be compared with healthy test subjects. “The 3D map would conceivably be most useful in the investigation of patients with brain tumours or strokes,” says Grabner.

Five years of 7-Tesla magnetic resonance imaging at the MedUni Vienna
Its geographical proximity to Vienna General Hospital makes the Centre of Excellence for High-Field MR at the MedUni Vienna a unique in Europe and world-leading research site for 7-Tesla ultra-high-field magnetic resonance imaging. The 7-Tesla scanner delivers a higher resolution than previous 3-Tesla devices. Since November 2008, over 700 patients have been investigated with the 7-Tesla MRI scanner at the MedUni Vienna. In the spring of 2013, the leading manufacturer of this technology, Siemens AG, declared the Vienna Centre of Excellence as its international reference centre for ultra-high-field MR. The MedUni Vienna is celebrating “5 years of 7-Tesla” with an event marking five years of patient studies at the 7-Tesla Symposium on 14 November 2013. A Siemens ultra-high-field symposium is also being held for the first time in Vienna on 15/16 November.

Medical Imaging – one of the five research clusters
Medical Imaging is one of the five research clusters at the MedUni Vienna. In this and the other four specialist domains, the MedUni Vienna is increasingly focusing on fundamental and clinical research. The other four research clusters are Medical Neurosciences, Cardiovascular Medicine, Allergology / Immunology / Infectiology and Cancer Research / Oncology.

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