Brain MRI changes in degenerative cervical myelopathy: a systematic review.


BACKGROUND: Degenerative cervical myelopathy (DCM) is the most common cause of adult spinal cord dysfunction globally. Associated neurological symptoms and signs have historically been explained by pathobiology within the cervical spine. However, recent advances in imaging have shed light on numerous brain changes in patients with DCM, and it is hypothesised that these changes contribute to DCM pathogenesis. The aetiology, significance, and distribution of these supraspinal changes is currently unknown. The objective was therefore to synthesise all current evidence on brain changes in DCM. METHODS: A systematic review was performed. Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies with magnetic resonance imaging on a cohort of patients with DCM were eligible. PRISMA guidelines were followed. MEDLINE and Embase were searched to 28th August 2023. Duplicate title/abstract screening, data extraction and risk of bias assessments were conducted. A qualitative synthesis of the literature is presented as per the Synthesis Without Meta-Analysis (SWiM) reporting guideline. The review was registered with PROSPERO (ID: CRD42022298538). FINDINGS: Of the 2014 studies that were screened, 47 studies were identified that used MRI to investigate brain changes in DCM. In total, 1500 patients with DCM were included in the synthesis, with a mean age of 53 years. Brain alterations on MRI were associated with DCM both before and after surgery, particularly within the sensorimotor network, visual network, default mode network, thalamus and cerebellum. Associations were commonly reported between brain MRI alterations and clinical measures, particularly the Japanese orthopaedic association (JOA) score. Risk of bias of included studies was low to moderate. INTERPRETATION: The rapidly expanding literature provides mounting evidence for brain changes in DCM. We have identified key structures and pathways that are altered, although there remains uncertainty regarding the directionality and clinical significance of these changes. Future studies with greater sample sizes, more detailed phenotyping and longer follow-up are now needed. FUNDING: ODM is supported by an Academic Clinical Fellowship at the University of Cambridge. BMD is supported by an NIHR Clinical Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Cambridge (NIHR300696). VFJN is supported by an NIHR Rosetrees Trust Advanced Fellowship (NIHR302544). This project was supported by an award from the Rosetrees Foundation with the Storygate Trust (A2844).