Neuronal Structural Alterations in Multiple Sclerosis


The intricate interplay between neuronal tissue structure and the development of neurodegenerative diseases has long fascinated researchers in the field of neuroscience. Traditional histological techniques have primarily relied on two-dimensional observations of tissue sections, limiting our ability to fully understand the three-dimensional complexity of neural structures. However, recent advancements in imaging technology, particularly X-ray phase contrast computed tomography (XPCT), have opened new avenues for investigating the morphological intricacies of neuronal tissues. In a new study published in the Neuroscience Journal, Dr. Jakob Frost, Dr. Bernhard Schmitzer, Dr. Mareike Töpperwien, Dr. Marina Eckermann, Dr. Jonas Franz, Dr. Christine Stadelmann, and led by Professor Tim Salditt at the University of Göttingen in Germany, present their findings on the structural properties of neurons in the granular layer of the human cerebellum concerning their involvement in multiple sclerosis (MS).

The cerebellum, a brain region responsible for motor control and coordination, plays a pivotal role in multiple sclerosis, which is characterized by a complex array of symptoms, including cerebellar motor dysfunction and cognitive deficits. This study aims to shed light on the cytoarchitecture of the cerebellum, a region comprising densely packed neurons in the granular layer, to explore potential structural alterations associated with MS.

Traditional histological methods have limitations in providing comprehensive three-dimensional insights into neural tissue architecture. However, XPCT has emerged as a cutting-edge technique for 3D imaging in histology and pathohistology. Unlike conventional methods, XPCT allows for the visualization of neural cytoarchitecture in unstained paraffin-embedded tissue, providing valuable information about neuronal nuclei, axons, and dendrites.

The new study builds upon earlier research that utilized XPCT to provide 3D imaging of human cerebellar tissue samples collected post mortem. The researchers employed automated segmentation techniques, based on the Hough transform, to precisely locate neuronal nuclei within the granular layer. This approach facilitated a detailed statistical analysis of neuronal spatial distribution, revealing previously unreported anisotropy in the short-range order of granule cells.

The authors expanded their previous work on cerebellar tissue to investigate potential structural alterations in the granular layer associated with MS. By comparing tissue samples from six MS patients to samples from six control subjects, the study aims to uncover any pathological changes in cerebellar granule cells.

One notable advancement in the new study is the utilization of the Blob Finder algorithm within the Arivis software package. This sophisticated tool enables not only the segmentation of neuronal nuclei but also the extraction of additional structural features, including size, shape, electron density, and heterogeneity within the nucleus.

The application of Optimal Transport theory (OT) represents a significant breakthrough in this study. OT allows for a comprehensive comparison of structural features in neuronal nuclei between MS and control groups without relying on prior structural hypotheses or group attribution. This statistical approach provides a more nuanced understanding of structural alterations, even when mean values remain constant.

The authors findings reveal a 16% increase in neuronal density in the MS group, although this finding only reaches marginal statistical significance. This increase in density is further supported by structural analysis, which shows a shift in the short-range order of granule cells, indicating a smaller next-neighbor distance in the MS group. The authors suggest that this observation may be attributed to tissue shrinkage, potentially in response to decreased neuronal activity and tissue remodeling in the neuropil, the inter-neuronal space.

The most significant structural feature found to change between the MS and control groups is heterogeneity within neuronal nuclei. Heterogeneity, quantifying density variation within the nucleus, displays a significant increase in the MS group. OT analysis further corroborates this finding, demonstrating clear separation between the two groups. The researchers propose that this shift towards a more compact nuclear state, characterized by increased heterogeneity, smaller volume, and higher density, may be linked to an increased ratio of heterochromatin to euchromatin.

The study’s findings hold profound implications for our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, suggesting that a more compact nucleus resulting from cellular senescence may be a common phenomenon in various neurodegenerative conditions. However, it is essential to acknowledge the study’s limitations, primarily its relatively small sample size.

Future research in this field should focus on expanding sample sizes, possibly through improved tissue bank operations and enhanced documentation. Additionally, investigations into the role of demyelinated lesions in MS should be pursued, with potential correlations between XPCT and MRI data. This would offer a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between structural alterations and functional changes in the brain.

The relevance of structural data in the context of neurodegenerative diseases remains a subject of ongoing debate. While genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics provide valuable insights, the cytoarchitecture of neuronal tissues offers a unique perspective on disease progression. However, comprehensive, quantitative, and three-dimensional structural data are necessary to make meaningful contributions to our understanding of neurodegeneration.

In conclusion, the study led by Professor Tim Salditt and his team at the University of Göttingen showcases the potential of XPCT and OT analysis in unraveling the structural alterations associated with multiple sclerosis. While the study’s small sample size highlights the need for future research with larger cohorts, it sets a promising precedent for the integration of advanced imaging techniques in the study of neurodegenerative diseases. As technology continues to advance, we can anticipate further progress in the field, ultimately leading to a deeper understanding of the intricate relationship between neuronal structure and disease pathogenesis.

Neuronal Structural Alterations in Multiple Sclerosis - Medicine Innovates
Segmentation of the granule cell nuclei. Image credit: Neuroscience Journal

About the author

Prof. Dr. Tim Salditt

Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

The research of Prof. Dr. Tim Salditt’s group is directed at structure analysis of soft and biological matter, from macromolecular assemblies to cells and tissues

Major Research Interests

  • Structure and interactions in biomolecular matter.
  • Structure of biomaterials.
  • Supramolecular assemblies.
  • Synchrotron radiation.
  • X-ray optics.
  • Membrane biophysics.
  • Inelastic neutron scattering.
  • X-ray microscopy.


Frost J, Schmitzer B, Töpperwien M, Eckermann M, Franz J, Stadelmann C, Salditt T. 3d Virtual Histology Reveals Pathological Alterations of Cerebellar Granule Cells in Multiple Sclerosis. Neuroscience. 2023 Jun 1;520:18-38. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2023.04.002.

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