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Regional hippocampal atrophy reflects memory impairment in patients with early relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis.

BACKGROUND: Research work has shown that hippocampal subfields are atrophic to varying extents in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients. However, studies examining the functional implications of subfield-specific hippocampal damage in early MS are limited. We aim to gain insights into the relationship between hippocampal atrophy and memory function by investigating the correlation between global and regional hippocampal atrophy and memory performance in early MS patients.

METHODS: From the Italian Neuroimaging Network Initiative (INNI) dataset, we selected 3D-T1-weighted brain MRIs of 219 early relapsing remitting (RR)MS and 246 healthy controls (HC) to identify hippocampal atrophic areas. At the time of MRI, patients underwent Selective-Reminding-Test (SRT) and Spatial-Recall-Test (SPART) and were classified as mildly (MMI-MS: n.110) or severely (SMI-MS: n:109) memory impaired, according to recently proposed cognitive phenotypes.

RESULTS: Early RRMS showed lower hippocampal volumes compared to HC (p < 0.001), while these did not differ between MMI-MS and SMI-MS. In MMI-MS, lower hippocampal volumes correlated with worse memory tests (r = 0.23-0.37, p ≤ 0.01). Atrophic voxels were diffuse in the hippocampus but more prevalent in cornu ammonis (CA, 79%) than in tail (21%). In MMI-MS, decreased subfield volumes correlated with decreases in memory, particularly in the right CA1 (SRT-recall: r = 0.38; SPART: r = 0.34, p < 0.01). No correlations were found in the SMI-MS group.

CONCLUSION: Hippocampal atrophy spreads from CA to tail from early disease stages. Subfield hippocampal atrophy is associated with memory impairment in MMI-MS, while this correlation is lost in SMI-MS. This plays in favor of a limited capacity for an adaptive functional reorganization of the hippocampi in MS patients.

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