Functional connectivity dynamics reflect disability and multi-domain clinical impairment in patients with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis

Amy Romanello, Stephan Krohn, Nina von Schwanenflug, Claudia Chien, Judith Bellmann-Strobl, Klemens Ruprecht, Friedemann Paula, Carsten Finke

Background & Aim: Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system associated with deficits in cognitive and motor functioning. While structural brain changes such as demyelination are an early hallmark of the disease, a characteristic profile of functional brain alterations in early MS is lacking. Functional neuroimaging studies at various disease stages have revealed complex and heterogeneous patterns of aberrant functional connectivity (FC) in MS, with previous studies largely being limited to a static account of FC. Thus, it remains unclear how time-resolved FC relates to variance in clinical disability status in early MS. We here aimed to characterize brain network organization in early MS patients with time-resolved FC analysis and to explore the relationship between disability status, multi-domain clinical outcomes and altered network dynamics.

Methods: Resting-state functional MRI (rs-fMRI) data were acquired from 101 MS patients and 101 age- and sex- matched healthy controls (HC). Based on the Expanded Disability Status Score (EDSS), patients were split into two sub-groups: patients without clinical disability (EDSS ≤ 1, n = 36) and patients with mild to moderate levels of disability (EDSS ≥ 2, n = 39). Five dynamic FC states were extracted from whole-brain rs-fMRI data. Group differences in static and dynamic FC strength, across-state overall connectivity, dwell time, transition frequency, modularity, and global connectivity were assessed. Patients’ impairment was quantified as custom clinical outcome z-scores (higher: worse) for the domains depressive symptoms, fatigue, motor, vision, cognition, total brain atrophy, and lesion load. Correlation analyses between functional measures and clinical outcomes were performed with Spearman partial correlation analyses controlling for age.

Results: Patients with mild to moderate levels of disability exhibited a more widespread spatiotemporal pattern of altered FC and spent more time in a high-connectivity, low-occurrence state compared to patients without disability and HCs. Worse symptoms in all clinical outcome domains were positively associated with EDSS scores. Furthermore, depressive symptom severity was positively related to functional dynamics as measured by state- specific global connectivity and default mode network connectivity with attention networks, while fatigue and motor impairment were related to reduced frontoparietal network connectivity with the basal ganglia.

Conclusions: Despite comparably low impairment levels in early MS, we identified distinct connectivity alter- ations between patients with mild to moderate disability and those without disability, and these changes were sensitive to clinical outcomes in multiple domains. Furthermore, time-resolved analysis uncovered alterations in network dynamics and clinical correlations that remained undetected with conventional static analyses, showing that accounting for temporal dynamics helps disentangle the relationship between functional alterations, disability status, and symptoms in early MS.

NeuroImage: Clinical. 36:103203 (2022)


brain dynamicsdisabilityfunctional connectivityfunctional magnetic resonance imagingmultiple sclerosisresting-state
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