Diffusion-weighted MR of the brain: methodology and clinical application

Mario Mascalchi, Massimo Filippi, Roberto Floris, Claudio Fonda, Roberto Gasparotti, Natale Villari
La Radiologia Medica 2005, 109 (3): 155-97
Clinical diffusion magnetic resonance (MR) imaging in humans started in the last decade with the demonstration of the capabilities of this technique of depicting the anatomy of the white matter fibre tracts in the brain. Two main approaches in terms of reconstruction and evaluation of the images obtained with application of diffusion sensitising gradients to an echo planar imaging sequence are possible. The first approach consists of reconstruction of images in which the effect of white matter anisotropy is averaged -- known as the isotropic or diffusion weighted images, which are usually evaluated subjectively for possible areas of increased or decreased signal, reflecting restricted and facilitated diffusion, respectively. The second approach implies reconstruction of image maps of the apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC), in which the T2 weighting of the echo planar diffusion sequence is cancelled out, and their objective, i.e. numerical, evaluation with regions of interest or histogram analysis. This second approach enables a quantitative and reproducible assessment of the diffusion changes not only in areas exhibiting signal abnormality in conventional MR images but also in areas of normal signal. A further level of image post-processing requires the acquisition of images after application of sensitising gradients along at least 6 different spatial orientations and consists of computation of the diffusion tensor and reconstruction of maps of the mean diffusivity (D) and of the white matter anisotropic properties, usually in terms of fractional anisotropy (FA). Diffusion-weighted imaging is complementary to conventional MR imaging in the evaluation of the acute ischaemic stroke. The combination of diffusion and perfusion MR imaging has the potential of providing all the information necessary for the diagnosis and management of the individual patient with acute ischaemic stroke. Diffusion-weighted MR, in particular quantitative evaluation based on the diffusion tensor, has a fundamental role in the assessment of brain maturation and of white matter diseases in the fetus, in the neonate and in the child. Diffusion MR imaging enables a better characterisation of the lesions demonstrated by conventional MR imaging, for instance in the hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy, in infections and in the inherited metabolic diseases, and is particularly important for the longitudinal evaluation of these conditions. Diffusion-weighted MR imaging has an established role in the differential diagnosis between brain abscess and cystic tumour and between epidermoid tumour and arachnoid cyst. On the other hand, the results obtained with diffusion MR in the characterisation of type and extension of glioma do not yet allow decision making in the individual patient. Diffusion is one of the most relevant MR techniques to have contributed to a better understanding of the pathophysiological mechanisms of multiple sclerosis (MS). In fact, it improves the specificity of MR in characterising the different pathological substrata underlying the rather uniform lesion appearance on the conventional images and enables detection of damage in the normal-appearing white and grey matter. In MS patients the ADC or D values in the normal-appearing white matter are increased as compared to control values, albeit to a lesser degree than in the lesions demonstrated by T2-weighted images. In addition, the D of the normal appearing grey matter is increased in MS patients and this change correlates with the cognitive deficit of these patients. Histogram analysis in MS patients shows that the peak of the brain D is decreased and right-shifted, reflecting an increase of its value, and the two features correlate with the patient's clinical disability. Ageing is associated to a mild but significant increase of the brain ADC or D which is predominantly due to changes in the white matter. Region of interest and histogram studies have demonstrated that D or ADC are increased in either the areas of leukoaraiosis or the normal-appearing white matter in patients with inherited cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and stroke or sporadic ischaemic leukoencephalopathy. Diffusion changes might be a more sensitive marker for progression of the disease than conventional imaging findings. In neurodegenerative diseases of the central nervous system such as Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease, hereditary ataxias and motor neuron disease, quantitative diffusion MR demonstrates the cortical and subcortical grey matter damage, which is reflected in a regional increase of D or ADC, but also reveals the concomitant white matter changes that are associated with an increase in D or ADC and decrease in FA. In all these diseases the diffusion changes are correlated to the clinical deficit and are potentially useful for early diagnosis and longitudinal evaluation, especially in the context of pharmacological trials.

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