Cortical reorganization occurring in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients is thought to play a key role in limiting the effect of structural tissue damage. Conversely, its exhaustion may contribute to the irreversible disability that accumulates with disease progression. Several aspects of MS-related cortical reorganization, including the overall functional effect and likely modulation by therapies, still remain to be elucidated. The aim of this work was to assess the extent of functional cortical reorganization and its brain structural/pathological correlates in Dark Agouti rats with experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), a widely accepted preclinical model of chronic MS. Morphological and functional MRI (fMRI) were performed before disease induction and during the relapsing and chronic phases of EAE. During somatosensory stimulation of the right forepaw, fMRI demonstrated that cortical reorganization occurs in both relapsing and chronic phases of EAE with increased activated volume and decreased laterality index versus baseline values. Voxel-based morphometry demonstrated gray matter (GM) atrophy in the cerebral cortex, and both GM and white matter atrophy were assessed by ex vivo pathology of the sensorimotor cortex and corpus callosum. Neuroinflammation persisted in the relapsing and chronic phases, with dendritic spine density in the layer IV sensory neurons inversely correlating with the number of cluster of differentiation 45-positive inflammatory lesions. Our work provides an innovative experimental platform that may be pivotal for the comprehension of key mechanisms responsible for the accumulation of irreversible brain damage and for the development of innovative therapies to reduce disability in EAE/MS.
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