MRI brain scans can help doctors predict whether people with possible early signs of multiple sclerosis will develop the central nervous system disorder and how severe it will be, a British study concluded.
Until a few years ago, doctors did not officially diagnose MS or start treatment until patients had two episodes of nerve problems in different parts of the body -- flare-ups that could come many years apart while damage silently accumulated.
Now, researchers at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London say they have proved that magnetic resonance imaging of patients' brains can detect damage around nerve fibers in nearly all of those who develop MS.
The study was reported in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
"It adds to the impetus to put people on drugs early," rather than waiting years for a definitive diagnosis, said Dr. Stuart D. Cook, an MS researcher and professor of neuroscience.
Recent research has found that putting patients on MS drugs at the first sign of nerve inflammation can sharply cut the chances of developing the disorder within a few years, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society now recommends doing so.
The first drugs to cut the severity and frequency of MS attacks were not available until a decade ago.
About 350,000 Americans have multiple sclerosis.