Probing neuronal activation by functional quantitative susceptibility mapping under a visual paradigm: A group level comparison with BOLD fMRI and PET

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Dynamic changes of brain-tissue magnetic susceptibility provide the basis for functional MR imaging (fMRI) via T2*-weighted signal-intensity modulations. Promising initial work on a detection of neuronal activity via quantitative susceptibility mapping (fQSM) has been published but consistently reported on ill-understood positive and negative activation patterns (Balla et al., 2014; Chen and Calhoun, 2015a). We set out to (i) demonstrate that fQSM can exploit established fMRI data acquisition and processing methods and to (ii) better describe aspects of the apparent activation patterns using fMRI and PET as standards of reference. Under a standardized visual-stimulation paradigm PET and 3-T gradient-echo EPI-based fQSM, fMRI data from 9 healthy volunteers were acquired and analyzed by means of Independent Component Analysis (ICA) at subject level and, for the first time, at group level. Numbers of activated (z-score > 2.0) voxels were counted and their mean z-scores calculated in volumes of interest (occipital lobe (Nocc_lobe), segmented occipital gray-matter (NGM_occ_lobe), large veins (Nveins)), and in occipital-lobe voxels commonly activated in fQSM and fMRI component maps. Common but not entirely congruent regions of apparent activation were found in the occipital lobe in z-score maps from all modalities, fQSM, fMRI and PET, with distinct BOLD-negatively correlated regions in fQSM data. At subject-level, Nocc_lobe, NGM_occ_lobe and their mean z-scores were significantly smaller in fQSM than in fMRI, but their ratio, NGM_occ_lobe/Nocc_lobe, was comparable. Nveins did not statistically differ and the ratio Nveins/NGM_occ_lobe as well as the mean z-scores were higher for fQSM than for fMRI. In veins and immediate vicinity, z-score maps derived from both phase and fQSM-data showed positive and negative lobes resembling dipole shapes in simulated field and phase maps with no correlate in fMRI or PET data. Our results show that standard fMRI tools can directly be used for fQSM processing, and suggest that fQSM may have the potential to detect gray-matter activation distant from large veins, to improve detection of veins with stimulus-induced venous oxygen saturation (SvO2) variations, and to better localize areas of activation. However, our results seem to clearly expose issues that phenomenologically resemble an incomplete dipolar inversion and that need to be subject to further investigation.

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