Since the core clinical imaging features of SPG5 has not been described previously, we undertook the present study not only to provide a detailed characterization of the structural signature of SPG5, but also to investigate what specific patterns of spinal cord and brain damage correlate with clinical and pathogenic manifestations. To accomplish these goals, we enrolled a relatively large set of patients who underwent systematic clinical assessment combined with multimodal MRI and CSF markers evaluations. As a result, we have described the neuroimaging findings from both clinical and molecular pathologic viewpoints. First, the signal abnormality at cervical levels was reliably reflected by conventional spinal cord MRI among the SPG5 patients, and “+” T2 hyperintensities (cross sign) in the atrophy spinal cord appeared in all 17 patients. Second, we set up cross sign scoring to grade the severity of this sign, and subsequently found that total cross sign scores bore a strongly positive correlation with the extent of disease degeneration, as assessed by standardized disability scales and disease duration. Third, as expected, each total spinal cord area had decreased significantly at each site investigated, in comparison with those of healthy controls, especially in the T4 level. However, no correlation was evident between spinal cord area and either disability or pathogenesis-associated molecular biomarkers. Fourth, no abnormality was present in conventional brain MRI or quantitative brain MRI-derived data, with the exception of a mildly reduced gray matter on the thalami.
T2 hyperintensities in spinal cord MRI are commonly associated with a large variety of causes (inflammation, infections, neoplasms, vascular, and spondylotic diseases), but it is rarely caused by HSP, except as reported for hereditary spastic paraplegias type 2 (SPG2), due to PLP1 gene mutations(13).
In this study, the included SPG5 patients were retained for long-term follow-up and, no other disease was identified. The cross sign spinal cord T2 hyperintensities, first defined in this report, appeared in all 17 of our patients on three different sequences (T2, T2-PD, T2*-MEDIC), and differed from the T2 hyperintensity morphology in patients with SPG2. Thus, this spinal cord cross sign is a specific imaging feature for SPG5 and can therefore serve as a potentially useful diagnostic biomarker for SPG5, both in guidance for genetic testing or as a reference for interpreting genetic findings.
Upon further investigation, we found that the spinal cord of SPG5 patients was atrophied but without correlation to the extent of disability or duration of disease, as reported for other subtypes of HSP(14). The lack of correlation may be partially explained by slow progression of SPG5 and low sensitivity of the imaging biomarker (spinal cord area). In contrast, the total cross sign score may provide a more sensitive imaging marker than other features of the spinal cord for quantifying the degree of neurodegeneration. As such, the cross-sign scores can be a valuable and informative imaging biomarker for monitoring disease process as well as the therapeutic response of SPG5 patients.
The accumulation of 27-OHC may be not only a biomarker but also a key factor in driving tissue damage in patients with SPG5. NFL is a protein component of the cytoskeleton of myelinated axons, and, as such, constitutes a putative biomarker to reflect axonal injury(15–17). Further, the concentration of CSF 27-OHC, which had a positive correlation with CSF NFL concentration in our study, could potentially indicate an association of neurotoxic 27-OHC with axonal injury. However, no significant correlation was identified between the concentrations of 27-OHC or NFL in the CSF with the progressive degeneration shown in clinical load (SPRS, disease duration) or in the worsening imaging indicators (total cross sign scores, spinal cord area). Therefore, although CSF 27-OHC and CSF NFL may be suitable markers for monitoring disease activities, they are not useful guides to the overall progression of SPG5.
Surprisingly, we failed to identify obvious cerebral atrophy in SPG5 through two advanced imaging techniques (visual rating of cerebral atrophy and quantitative brain measurements), as reported in Alzheimer’s disease(18). However, emerging evidence has revealed common pathological mechanisms in neuronal injury from 27-OHC in familial Alzheimer’s disease and SPG5(6, 19–21). In contrast, spinal cord morphometry indicated more substantial atrophy in SPG5 patients. Moreover, specific T2 hyperintensities visible on spinal cord MRI support the likelihood that severe spinal cord damage from 27-OHC might be implicated in SPG5 pathogenesis.
SPG5 (CYP7B1 gene mutation) and cerebrotendinous xanthomatosis (CTX, CYP27A1 gene mutation) are neurological diseases with mutations in genes that participate in cholesterol metabolism (22–24). Rare cases of genetically and biochemically confirmed ‘spinal CTX’ have been reported(25–30). Spinal CTX differs from the classical cases with a relatively benign course, whose clinical presentations are dominated by spinal symptoms (spastic paraplegia, alteration to deep sensation, and urinary involvement), and paucity or absence of the classical neurological and systemic symptoms. These clinical features are almost indistinguishable from SPG5. In spinal CTX patients, spinal MRI studies revealed longitudinally extensive posterior and lateral column white matter abnormalities on T2 images, which strongly resemble our observations in SPG5 patients(29),(30). Together, the mutations associated with cholesterol metabolism and similar clinical and spinal cord MRI features suggest the likelihood of a similar pathogenic mechanisms for spinal cerebrotendinous xanthomatosis and SPG5.