It is not possible to determine exactly how many nerves can be lost before their absence is noted, but this will depend on which areas of the CNS are affected. For MS we can only link precise nerve content to disability at post-mortem so it hard to say. However imaging studies suggest that there may be loss of 1% a year compared to 0.1% with normal aging.
Bjartmar C, Kidd G, Mörk S, Rudick R, Trapp BD. Neurological disability correlates with spinal cord axonal loss and reduced N-acetyl aspartate in chronic multiple sclerosis patients. Ann Neurol. 2000;48:893-901.
Axonal degeneration has been proposed as a cause of irreversible neurological disability in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients. The purpose of this study was to quantify axonal loss in spinal cord lesions from 5 paralyzed (Expanded Disability Status Scale score > or =7.5) MS patients and to determine if axonal number or volume correlated with levels of the neuronal marker N-acetyl aspartate (NAA). Axonal loss in MS lesions ranged from 45 to 84% and averaged 68%. NAA levels were significantly reduced (>50%) in cross sections of spinal cords containing MS lesions. Reduced NAA correlated with reduced axonal numbers within lesion areas. In addition, NAA levels per axonal volume were significantly reduced in demyelinated axons (42%) and in myelinated axons in normal-appearing white matter (30%). The data support axonal loss as a major cause of irreversible neurological disability in paralyzed MS patients and indicate that reduced NAA as measured by magnetic resonance spectroscopy can reflect axonal loss and reduced NAA levels in demyelinated and myelinated axons.
This study shows that paralysis can be associated with about 50-70% nerve loss in the spinal cord
Miller DH, Barkhof F, Frank JA, Parker GJ, Thompson AJ. Measurement of atrophy in multiple sclerosis: pathological basis, methodological aspects and clinical relevance. Brain. 2002 Aug;125(Pt 8):1676-95
MRI methods are widely used to follow the pathological evolution of multiple sclerosis in life and its modification by treatment. To date, measures of the number and volume of macroscopically visible lesions have been studied most often. These MRI outcomes have demonstrated clear treatment effects but without a commensurate clinical benefit, suggesting that there are other aspects of multiple sclerosis pathology that warrant investigation. In this context, there has been considerable interest in measuring tissue loss (atrophy) as a more global marker of the adverse outcome of multiple sclerosis pathology, whether it arises in macroscopic lesions or in the normal appearing tissues. An International Workshop recently considered the measurement of atrophy in multiple sclerosis and provided the basis for this review. Brain white matter bulk consists predominantly of axons (46%) followed by myelin (24%), and progressive atrophy implies loss of these structures, especially axons, although variable effects on tissue volumes may also arise from glial cell proliferation or loss, gliosis, inflammation and oedema. Significant correlations found between brain volume and other putative MR neuronal markers also indicate that atrophy reflects axonal loss. Numerous methods are available for the measurement of global and regional brain volumes and upper cervical cord cross-sectional area that are highly reproducible and sensitive to changes within 6-12 months. In general, 3D-T(1)-weighted acquisitions and largely automated segmentation approaches are optimal. Whereas normalized volumes are desirable for cross-sectional studies, absolute volume measures are adequate for serial investigation. Atrophy is seen at all clinical stages of multiple sclerosis, developing gradually following the appearance of inflammatory lesions. This probably reflects both inflammation-induced axonal loss followed by Wallerian degeneration and post-inflammatory neurodegeneration that may be partly due to failure of remyelination. One component of atrophy appears to be independent of focal lesions. Existing immunomodulatory therapies have had limited effects on progressive atrophy, concordant with their modest effects on progressive disability. Atrophy provides a sensitive measure of the neurodegenerative component of multiple sclerosis and should be measured in trials evaluating potential anti-inflammatory, remyelinating or neuroprotective therapies.
Progression is associated with increasing nerve loss.
Bjartmar C, Wujek JR, Trapp BD. Axonal loss in the pathology of MS: consequences for understanding the progressive phase of the disease. J Neurol Sci. 2003;206:165-71
Axonal degeneration has been identified as the major determinant of irreversible neurological disability in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). Axonal injury begins at disease onset and correlates with the degree of inflammation within lesions, indicating that inflammatory demyelination influences axon pathology during relapsing-remitting MS (RR-MS). This axonal loss remains clinically silent for many years, and irreversible neurological disability develops when a threshold of axonal loss is reached and compensatory CNS resources are exhausted. Experimental support for this view-the axonal hypothesis-is provided by data from various animal models with primary myelin or axonal pathology, and from pathological or magnetic resonance studies on MS patients. In mice with experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), 15-30% of spinal cord axons can be lost before permanent ambulatory impairment occurs. During secondary progressive MS (SP-MS), chronically demyelinated axons may degenerate due to lack of myelin-derived trophic support. In addition, we hypothesize that reduced trophic support from damaged targets or degeneration of efferent fibers may trigger preprogrammed neurodegenerative mechanisms. The concept of MS as an inflammatory neurodegenerative disease has important clinical implications regarding therapeutic approaches, monitoring of patients, and the development of neuroprotective treatment strategies.
The figure of 15-30% loss without noticing ambulatory impairment is perhaps a bit high but with a 15% initial loss, I would expect to be able to see something, but it does show there is capacity to lose a certain amount of nerves
Tallantyre EC, Bø L, Al-Rawashdeh O, Owens T, Polman CH, Lowe J, Evangelou N. Greater loss of axons in primary progressive multiple sclerosis plaques compared to secondary progressive disease. Brain. 2009;132:1190-9.
The pathological substrate of progressive disability in multiple sclerosis is hypothesized to be axonal loss. Differences in the demographic, pathological and radiological features of patients with primary progressive compared with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis raise the question as to whether they actually represent separate clinical entities. So far, large pathological studies comparing axonal damage between primary progressive and secondary progressive multiple sclerosis have not been reported. In this clinico-pathological study we examined the cervical spinal cord in patients with primary and secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. Human cervical spinal cord was derived at autopsy from 54 patients (17 primary progressive, 30 secondary progressive and 7 controls). Tissue was stained immunohistochemically and examined to determine: (i) the number of surviving corticospinal tract axons; (ii) the extent of grey and white matter demyelination; (iii) the degree of inflammation inside and outside of lesions; and (iv) the relationship between demyelination and axonal loss. Associated clinical data was used to calculate expanded disability status scale for each patient preceding death. Motor disability in the primary progressive and secondary progressive groups was similar preceding death. Secondary progressive multiple sclerosis patients showed considerably more extensive demyelination of both the white and grey matter of the cervical spinal cord. The total number of corticospinal axons was equally low in primary progressive and secondary progressive multiple sclerosis groups versus controls. The reduction of axonal density in demyelinated regions compared to normal appearing white matter was significantly more extensive in primary progressive versus secondary progressive patients (33% reduction versus 16% reduction, P < 0.001). These findings suggest axonal loss is the pathological substrate of progressive disability in both primary progressive and secondary progressive multiple sclerosis with a common plaque-centred mechanism. More extensive axonal loss within areas of demyelination in primary progressive multiple sclerosis could explain high levels of axonal loss observed in these patients despite low levels of demyelination.
Number of axons in the Corticol spinal tract
Tallantyre EC, Bø L, Al-Rawashdeh O, Owens T, Polman CH, Lowe JS, Evangelou N. Clinico-pathological evidence that axonal loss underlies disability in progressive multiple sclerosis. Mult Scler. 2010;16:406-11