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An in vivo serial magnetic resonance imaging study of diffusion characteristics in human lumbar discs over 24 hours in healthy volunteers and patients with low back pain.To document the temporal pattern of diffusion in normal human lumbar discs and to study the influence of the vascularity of bone and the status of endplate on diffusion in the normal and degenerate discs.Diffusion is the only source of nutrition to the discs, but no firm data are available on pattern of diffusion in humans. More data on this important subject are required to improve our understanding of disc degeneration and to probe research possibilities for preventing the same.The diffusion pattern over 24 hours following gadodiamide injection was studied in 150 discs (96 normal and 54 degenerate). Signal intensity values for three regions of interest in bone (i.e., vertebral body, subchondral bone, and endplate zone) and seven in the disc were calculated, and normal percentiles of diffusion were derived for these regions. Enhancement percentage for each time period, peak enhancement percentage for each region, and the time taken to achieve peak enhancement percentage (Tmax) were used to define and compare diffusion characteristics and plot a time-intensity curve to document the 24-hour temporal pattern. The correlation of blood flow of the bone as measured by peak enhancement percentage of vertebral body, the status of the endplate zone as measured by the peak enhancement percentage, and Tmax of the endplate zone were correlated with the diffusion of the disc.Univariate analysis of variance, multiple comparisons, appropriate tests for significance, and stepwise linear regression analysis were used for analysis of the data using SPSS software.In normal discs, a “diffusion march” from the vertebral body to the center of disc was noted with the SImax being observed at 5 min in the vertebral body and subchondral bone, at 2 hours in the endplate zone, and at 6 hours in the nucleus pulposus. A significant difference in mean peak enhancement percentage was observed between that of the body and the discs in those less than 10 years and those above the age of 20 years (P < 0.001). Alterations in endplate zone produced distinct magnetic resonance imaging signs of disturbance in diffusion, which offered a reliable noninvasive method of identifying endplate cartilage damage. Stepwise linear regression analysis showed that the significant variable influencing diffusion to the center of the nucleus pulposus of the total sample was peak enhancement percentage of endplate zone (R2 = 0.216; P < 0.001), that of degenerate discs was peak enhancement percentage of endplate zone (R2 = 0.322; P < 0.001), and that of normal discs (R2 = 0.324; P < 0.001) was age.Serial postcontrast magnetic resonance imaging studies offer a reliable method of assessing the diffusion of the discs and the functional status of the endplate cartilage. Endplate cartilage damage increases with age and produces considerable changes in diffusion. The present study has described reliable signs by which these damages can be identified in vivo. Aging and degeneration have been shown to be two separate processes by documenting clear-cut differences in diffusion. The present data encourage use of diffusion studies as a noninvasive method to assess the physiologic status of the disc and endplate and to study the effect of drugs, smoking, mechanical loading, exercises, etc. on the physiology of the disc.