Thursday, May 2, 2013

MS and the shrinking thalamus

Jennifer LaRue Huget

One of the aspects of my multiple sclerosis that I try hard not to think about is the physical damage the disease has done to my brain.

My brain had always been my best feature. I have not been blessed with great beauty or athletic prowess; I’m not musically gifted or good with my hands. But I could always rely on my brain: I’m smart, I’m funny and I can write a decent sentence when I have to.

So my first glimpse of the MRI that helped diagnose my MS was a real eye-opener. It was shocking to see the bright white spots where my own immune-system cells had attacked tissue in my brain, causing what was likely irreversible damage. I hated the term “white-matter lesions” referring to scars on the nerve fibers where immune cells had destroyed the protective myelin coating.

As I sat in my neurologist’s office viewing the MRI film on his lightbox, it was all there in black and white: MS had assaulted my favorite organ. And there was no telling how much farther it would go.

Neither I nor, I believe, my neurologist knew then to look for signs of damage on the thalamus, a gland that plays a key role in communication between various areas of the brain. Based on previous research, scientists already believed the thalamus (part of the brain’s grey matter, not the white matter) to be among the spots that MS targets heavily. But new research, if confirmed, adds evidence that shrinkage of the thalamus gland may indicate that MS is in play.

A study published April 23 in the journal Radiology tracked for two years 216 people with MS who’d been diagnosed with clinically isolated syndrome (a single neurological episode that often turns out to be the first symptom of MS). Decreases in the size of the thalamus, detected with MRI techniques, were found to be quite common among the 92 patients who eventually were diagnosed with MS. Moreover, shrinkage of the thalamus was a better predictor of which patients would develop MS than the presence of new lesions or the number of lesions detected by MRI.

The relationship between shrinkage of the thalamus and MS is not yet understood, and this study’s results need to be replicated in future studies, the authors note. But if the findings are confirmed, doctors may have another marker besides changes to the spinal fluid detected through lumbar puncture and white-matter lesions detected through MRI in their diagnostic arsenal. The involvement of the thalamus in the way MS develops might open new areas of research and perhaps lead to new treatments.

I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t be any happier learning that my thalamus had shrunk than I was to see those bright white spots on MRI that first time, or any time since. But I know that every new bit of knowledge science can amass about this perplexing disease marks a step toward better therapies and, one of these days, a cure. I am so grateful for these scientists’ hard work on our behalf.

Jennifer LaRue Huget was diagnosed with MS in 2001. A freelance writer and children's book author, she lives in Connecticut with her husband, two teenage kids, and two brown dogs. Her website is


  1. Thank you for taking the time to share. Our daughter was diagnosed at 19 and is now 32. I could relate myself to your words--in the sense that beauty and athletic ability are not my gifts but my sense of recall was incredibly strong and accurate. Not so much now--had a stroke a few years ago and although I am almost back to 'normal' some things have changed. I sadly spoke aloud, "I'm not who I was." God answered, "You are enough." I am enough and live each day with more grace.

  2. Thank you for sharing I was diagnosed in 2006. I'm now 47. Sorry but my counting skills went down the drain. The things that were so simple now has become the hardest task. Yet I'm still grateful for my many blessings because I know I could be worse and I'm not.

    1. Hello Maria, I was also diagnosed with MS in 2006. Since then, my MS has progressed so much, that I can not even walk unassisted or go to work.Where are you from?

  3. Thanks for sharing. I was diagnosed in 2012 but have had symptoms dating back as far as 1998. I'm now 30 and life is a little more difficult now with memory/concentration and all other things that add up having MS. I was actual thankful to my Doctors for the diagnosis as it made the symptoms finally make sense after so long living with the problems/symptoms but not knowing what the cause was. I'm thankful for everyday i have with my amazing supportive family and friends but hope everyday for a cure.

  4. What an eye opener! I have been diagnosed since 1996 and I have always been so proud of myself for immediately coming to terms with my situation and rolling with the punches along the way. However, after reading this I realized that like so many other people I have actually been in denial. I had never, until today, thought about the real damage that was occurring to my brain!

    The physical difficulties that come along have always gone away after a relapse or a day of over doing it, but the mental impairments go on. Friends and relatives always joke that is is old age, but those of us with MS know the difference between old age forgetfulness and MS confusion. And I certainly don't consider my 40's to be OLD AGE! lol

  5. wow, what an interesting article. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Hmmm.......interesting. I am certain that individual MRIs are just as different as our individual symptoms. I know that mine look different from the displayed MRI here in your blog.

    I am coming to the point that my attention needs to be paid to the current moment and the day I am currently living. I have to conserve my energy and this is part of my energy management.

  7. Thank you so much this article is very helpful, it lets me know and realise how serious MS really is. Thank you once again this means a lot to me.

  8. Thank you so much this article is very helpful, it lets me know and realise how serious MS really is. Thank you once again this means a lot to me.