In vivoMRI assessment of the human locus coeruleus along its rostrocaudal extent in young and older adults

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The locus coeruleus (LC), a major origin of noradrenergic projections in the central nervous system (CNS), may serve a critical role in the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease (AD) and Parkinson's disease (PD). As such, there is considerable interest to develop magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to assess the integrity of the LC in vivo. The high neuromelanin content of the LC serves as an endogenous contrast for MRI but existing protocols suffer from low spatial resolution along the rostrocaudal axis of the LC rendering it difficult to differentiate its integrity in caudal and rostral portions. This study presents a novel approach to investigate the human LC in vivo using T1-weighted Fast Low Angle Shot (FLASH) MRI at 3 T (T). Using high-resolution isotropic imaging to minimise the effect of low spatial resolution in the slice direction, this study aimed to characterise the rostrocaudal distribution of LC signal intensity attributed to neuromelanin from 25 young (22–30) and 57 older (61–80) adults. We found a significant age-related increase in maximum but not median signal intensity, indicating age-related differences were not homogenous. Instead, they were confined to the rostral third of the LC with relative sparing of the caudal portion. The findings presented demonstrate in vivo T1-weighted FLASH imaging may be used to characterise signal intensity changes across the entire rostrocaudal length of the LC (a corresponding standardised LC map is available for download), which may help to identify how the human LC is differentially affected in aging and neurodegenerative disease.

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