Clinical feasibility of using mean apparent propagator (MAP) MRI to characterize brain tissue microstructure

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Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) is the most widely used method for characterizing noninvasively structural and architectural features of brain tissues. However, the assumption of a Gaussian spin displacement distribution intrinsic to DTI weakens its ability to describe intricate tissue microanatomy. Consequently, the biological interpretation of microstructural parameters, such as fractional anisotropy or mean diffusivity, is often equivocal. We evaluate the clinical feasibility of assessing brain tissue microstructure with mean apparent propagator (MAP) MRI, a powerful analytical framework that efficiently measures the probability density function (PDF) of spin displacements and quantifies useful metrics of this PDF indicative of diffusion in complex microstructure (e.g., restrictions, multiple compartments). Rotation invariant and scalar parameters computed from the MAP show consistent variation across neuroanatomical brain regions and increased ability to differentiate tissues with distinct structural and architectural features compared with DTI-derived parameters. The return-to-origin probability (RTOP) appears to reflect cellularity and restrictions better than MD, while the non-Gaussianity (NG) measures diffusion heterogeneity by comprehensively quantifying the deviation between the spin displacement PDF and its Gaussian approximation. Both RTOP and NG can be decomposed in the local anatomical frame for reference determined by the orientation of the diffusion tensor and reveal additional information complementary to DTI. The propagator anisotropy (PA) shows high tissue contrast even in deep brain nuclei and cortical gray matter and is more uniform in white matter than the FA, which drops significantly in regions containing crossing fibers. Orientational profiles of the propagator computed analytically from the MAP MRI series coefficients allow separation of different fiber populations in regions of crossing white matter pathways, which in turn improves our ability to perform whole-brain fiber tractography. Reconstructions from subsampled data sets suggest that MAP MRI parameters can be computed from a relatively small number of DWIs acquired with high b-value and good signal-to-noise ratio in clinically achievable scan durations of less than 10 min. The neuroanatomical consistency across healthy subjects and reproducibility in test–retest experiments of MAP MRI microstructural parameters further substantiate the robustness and clinical feasibility of this technique. The MAP MRI metrics could potentially provide more sensitive clinical biomarkers with increased pathophysiological specificity compared to microstructural measures derived using conventional diffusion MRI techniques.

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