Imaging of inflammation in the peripheral and central nervous system by magnetic resonance imaging

G Stoll, M Bendszus
Neuroscience 2009 February 6, 158 (3): 1151-60
Inflammation plays a central role in the pathophysiology of numerous disorders of the nervous system, but is also pivotal for repair processes like peripheral nerve regeneration. In this review we summarize recent advances in cellular magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while nuclear imaging methods to visualize neuroinflammation are covered by Wunder et al. [Wunder A, Klohs J, Dirnagl U (2009) Non-invasive imaging of central nervous system inflammation with nuclear and optical imaging. Neuroscience, in press]. Use of iron oxide-contrast agents allows assessment of inflammatory processes in living organisms. Upon systemic application, circulating small (SPIO) and ultrasmall particles of iron oxide (USPIO) are preferentially phagocytosed by monocytes before clearance within the reticuloendothelial system of the liver, spleen and lymph nodes. Upon acute migration into the diseased nervous system these iron oxide-laden macrophages become visible on MRI by the superparamagnetic effects of iron oxide resulting in a signal loss on T2-w and/or bright contrast on T1-w MRI. There is an ongoing controversy, however, to what extent SPIO/USPIO also diffuses passively into the brain after disruption of the blood-brain barrier pretending macrophage invasion. Other confounding factors include circulating SPIO/USPIO particles within the blood pool, local hemorrhages, and intrinsic iron oxide-loading of phagocytes. These uncertainties can be overcome by in vitro preloading of cells with iron oxide contrast agents and consecutive systemic application into animals. Iron oxide-contrast-enhanced MRI allowed in vivo visualization of cellular inflammation during wallerian degeneration, experimental autoimmune neuritis and encephalomyelitis, and stroke in rodents, but also in patients with multiple sclerosis and stroke. Importantly, cellular MRI provides additional information to gadolinium-DTPA-enhanced MRI since cellular infiltration and breakdown of the blood-brain barrier are not closely linked. Coupling of antibodies to iron oxide particles opens new avenues for molecular MRI and has been successfully used to visualize cell adhesion molecules guiding inflammation.

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