Imaging CNS autoimmune and inflammatory disease

Spine Inflammatory Disease

This is the fourth lecture in a case based review of imaging of the brain and spine for autoimmune and inflammatory conditions. We will cover the MRI findings of some of the common conditions and some potential pitfalls and mimics.

This lecture covers two inflammatory diseases which can occur in the spinal cord: transverse myelitis and sarcoidosis. Multiple sclerosis can also cause an inflammatory myelitis, but it usually is associated with intracranial MS and has shorter segment lesions.

Transverse myelitis 

Transverse myelitis is a common infectious or inflammatory cause of myelopathy in the cervical or thoracic spine. This is most commonly manifested with long segment T2 abnormality (more than one vertebral body in length). It is commonly central and may have enhancement, particularly in the acute phase. It is often associated with a recent viral illness and can be caused by direct viral infection or as inflammatory post-viral syndrome. Treatment is largely limited to symptomatic control and immune suppression similar to treatment of multiple sclerosis.


Sarcoid can affect the spine although it is less common that involvement of the brain. The most common manifestation in the spine is long segment T2 hyperintensity with associated enhancement. The enhancement pattern is often nodular and peripheral, which can help differentiate it from other causes of abnormal cord signal. As with sarcoidosis in the brain, you may also see nodular areas of enhancement or sarcoidomas. The diagnostic workup is similar. You should start by imaging the brain and chest to look for other potential areas of sarcoid involvement. ACE levels or IL-2 surface antigen can also be useful when available.  

Summary and Conclusion

In summary, when you have longer segment T2 hyperintense lesions in the spine, you should think about transverse myelitis or sarcoidosis. There is a broader differential which includes multiple sclerosis, lymphoma, and other tumors (such as astrocytoma or ependymoma). You may not be able to tell without other diagnostic clues, which makes imaging of the brain and correlation with the clinical scenario important.

The level of this lecture is appropriate for radiology residents, radiology fellows, and trainees in other specialties, such as neurology, who have an interest in neuroradiology or may see patients with CNS demyelinating or inflammatory conditions.

Other videos on the autoimmune and demyelinating playlist are found here