In patients with Friedreich ataxia, structural MRI is typically used to detect abnormalities primarily in the brainstem, cerebellum, and spinal cord. The aim of the present study was to additionally investigate possible metabolic changes in Friedreich ataxia using in vivo sodium MRI that may precede macroanatomical alterations, and to explore potential associations with clinical parameters of disease progression. Tissue sodium concentration across the whole brain was estimated from sodium MRI maps acquired at 3 T and compared between 24 patients with Friedreich ataxia (21-57 years old, 13 females) and 23 controls (21-60 years old, 12 females). Compared to controls, patients showed reduced brain volume in the right cerebellar lobules I-V (difference in means: -0.039% of total intracranial volume [TICV]; Cohen's d = 0.83), cerebellar white matter (WM) (-0.105%TICV; d = 1.16), and brainstem (-0.167%TICV; d = 1.22), including pons (-0.102%TICV; d = 1.00), medulla (-0.036%TICV; d = 1.72), and midbrain (-0.028%TICV; d = 1.05). Increased sodium concentration was additionally detected in the total cerebellum (difference in means: 2.865 mmol; d = 0.68), and in several subregions with highest effect sizes in left (5.284 mmol; d = 1.01) and right cerebellar lobules I-V (5.456 mmol; d = 1.00), followed by increases in the vermis (4.261 mmol; d = 0.72), and in left (2.988 mmol; d = 0.67) and right lobules VI-VII (2.816 mmol; d = 0.68). In addition, sodium increases were also detected in all brainstem areas (3.807 mmol; d = 0.71 to 5.42 mmol; d = 1.19). After controlling for age, elevated total sodium concentrations in right cerebellar lobules IV were associated with younger age at onset (r = -0.43) and accordingly with longer disease duration in patients (r = 0.43). These findings support the potential of in vivo sodium MRI to detect metabolic changes of increased total sodium concentration in the cerebellum and brainstem, the key regions in Friedreich ataxia.

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