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The anterior optic pathway is one of the preferential sites of involvement in CNS inflammatory demyelinating diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and neuromyelitis optica, with optic neuritis being a common presenting symptom. What is more, optic nerve involvement in these diseases is often subclinical, with optical coherence tomography demonstrating progressive neuroretinal thinning in absence of optic neuritis. The pathological substrate for these findings is poorly understood and requires investigation. We had access to post-mortem tissue samples of optic nerves, chiasms, and tracts from 29 multiple sclerosis (mean age 59.5, range 25-84 years; 73 samples), 6 neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorders (56, 18-84 years; 22 samples), 6 acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (25, 10-39 years; 12 samples) cases and 5 non-neurological controls (55.2, 44-64 years; 16 samples). Formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded samples were immunolabelled for myelin, inflammation (microglial/macrophage, T- and B-cells, complement), acute axonal injury and astrocytes. We assessed the extent and distribution of these markers along the anterior optic pathway for each case in all compartments (i.e. parenchymal, perivascular, and meningeal), where relevant. Demyelinated plaques were classified as active based on established criteria. In multiple sclerosis, demyelination was present in 82.8% of cases of which 75% showed activity. Microglia/macrophage and lymphocyte inflammation were frequently found both in the parenchymal and meningeal compartments in non-demyelinated regions. Acute axonal injury affected 41.4% of cases and correlated with extent of inflammatory activity in each compartment even in cases that died at advanced age with over 20 years of disease duration. An antero-posterior gradient of anterior optic pathway involvement was observed with optic nerves being most severely affected by inflammation and acute axonal injury compared to the optic tract, where a higher proportion of remyelinated plaques were seen. In neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder, cases with a history of optic neuritis had extensive demyelination and lost aquaporin-4 reactivity. In contrast, those without prior optic neuritis did not have demyelination but rather diffuse microglial/macrophage, T and B-lymphocyte inflammation in both parenchymal and meningeal compartments, and acute axonal injury was present in 75% of cases. Acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis featured intense inflammation, and perivenular demyelination in 33% of cases. Our findings suggest that chronic inflammation is frequent and leads to neurodegeneration in multiple sclerosis and neuromyelitis optica, regardless of disease stage. The chronic inflammation and subsequent neurodegeneration occurring along the optic pathway broadens the plaque-centred view of these diseases and partly explains the progressive neuroretinal changes observed in optic coherence tomography studies.

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Conference paper

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multiple sclerosis, neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder, optic nerve, optic pathway, pathology