The acute phase of Wallerian degeneration: Longitudinal diffusion tensor imaging of the fornix following temporal lobe surgery

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Numerous animal studies have shown the applicability of diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to track Wallerian degeneration that occurs after injury to the neural fiber. Non-invasive biomarkers that may differentiate the early axonal breakdown and later myelin degradation have been attributed to either reduced parallel and elevated perpendicular diffusivity, respectively. While several human DTI studies have shown this potential at subacute and chronic time points, the diffusion changes that occur within the first week are unknown. Anterior temporal lobectomy (i.e. resection of hippocampus) is the standard surgical treatment of medically refractory temporal lobe epilepsy. The concomitant transection of the fimbria-fornix serves as a unique opportunity to examine the process of Wallerian degeneration since the timing is known. Six temporal lobe epilepsy patients underwent brain DTI before the surgery, three to four times within the first week post-operatively, and at one to four months following surgery. Both parallel and perpendicular diffusivities decreased markedly by a similar amount in the ipsilateral fornix within the first two days post-surgery. Approaching the end of the first week, perpendicular (but not parallel) diffusivity pseudo-recovered towards its pre-surgical value, but then increased dramatically months later. Fractional anisotropy, as a result of the combined action of the parallel and perpendicular diffusivities, stayed relatively stable within the first week and only reduced drastically at the chronic stage. DTI demonstrated acute water diffusion changes within days of transection that are not just limited to parallel diffusivity. While the chronic diffusion changes in the fornix are compatible with myelin degradation, the acute changes may reflect beading and swelling of axolemma, granular disintegration of the axonal neurofilaments, ischemia induced cytotoxic edema, and/or changes in the extra-axonal space including inflammatory changes and gliosis.


▸ DTI was measured in the fornix of epilepsy patients after temporal lobe surgery. ▸ Parallel, perpendicular, and mean diffusivities were reduced in the first week. ▸ Perpendicular and mean diffusivities were increased at chronic time points. ▸ Fractional anisotropy was stable in the first week and then decreased chronically. ▸ DTI detects acute micro-structural changes associated with Wallerian degeneration.

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