Introduction: The Central Vein Sign (CVS) has been suggested as a potential biomarker to improve diagnostic specificity in multiple sclerosis (MS). Nevertheless, the impact of comorbidities on CVS performance has been poorly investigated so far. Despite the similar features shared by MS, migraine and Small Vessel Disease (SVD) at T2-weighted conventional MRI sequences, ex-vivo studies demonstrated their heterogeneous histopathological substrates. If in MS, inflammation, primitive demyelination and axonal loss coexist, in SVD demyelination is secondary to ischemic microangiopathy, while the contemporary presence of inflammatory and ischemic processes has been suggested in migraine. The aims of this study were to investigate the impact of comorbidities (risk factors for SVD and migraine) on the global and subregional assessment of the CVS in a large cohort of MS patients and to apply the Spherical Mean Technique (SMT) diffusion model to evaluate whether perivenular and non-perivenular lesions show distinctive microstructural features. Methods: 120 MS patients stratified into 4 Age Groups performed 3T brain MRI. WM lesions were classified in “perivenular” and “non-perivenular” by visual inspection of FLAIR* images; mean values of SMT metrics, indirect estimators of inflammation, demyelination and fiber disruption (EXTRAMD: extraneurite mean diffusivity, EXTRATRANS: extraneurite transverse diffusivity and INTRA: intraneurite signal fraction, respectively) were extracted. Results: Of the 5303 lesions selected for the CVS assessment, 68.7% were perivenular. Significant differences were found between perivenular and non-perivenular lesion volume in the whole brain (p < 0.001) and between perivenular and non-perivenular lesion volume and number in all the four subregions (p < 0.001 for all). The percentage of perivenular lesions decreased from youngest to oldest patients (79.7%–57.7%), with the deep/subcortical WM of oldest patients as the only subregion where the number of non-perivenular was higher than the number of perivenular lesions. Older age and migraine were independent predictors of a higher percentage of non-perivenular lesions (p < 0.001 and p = 0.013 respectively). Whole brain perivenular lesions showed higher inflammation, demyelination and fiber disruption than non perivenular lesions (p = 0.001, p = 0.001 and p = 0.02 for EXTRAMD, EXTRATRANS and INTRA respectively). Similar findings were found in the deep/subcortical WM (p = 0.001 for all). Compared to non-perivenular lesions, (i) perivenular lesions located in periventricular areas showed a more severe fiber disruption (p = 0.001), (ii) perivenular lesions located in juxtacortical and infratentorial regions exhibited a higher degree of inflammation (p = 0.01 and p = 0.05 respectively) and (iii) perivenular lesions located in infratentorial areas showed a higher degree of demyelination (p = 0.04). Discussion: Age and migraine have a relevant impact in reducing the percentage of perivenular lesions, particularly in the deep/subcortical WM. SMT may differentiate perivenular lesions, characterized by higher inflammation, demyelination and fiber disruption, from non perivenular lesions, where these pathological processes seemed to be less pronounced. The development of new non-perivenular lesions, especially in the deep/subcortical WM of older patients, should be considered a “red flag” for a different -other than MS- pathophysiology.
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