A probabilistic atlas of human brainstem pathways based on connectome imaging data

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The brainstem is a critical structure that regulates vital autonomic functions, houses the cranial nerves and their nuclei, relays motor and sensory information between the brain and spinal cord, and modulates cognition, mood, and emotions. As a primary relay center, the fiber pathways of the brainstem include efferent and afferent connections among the cerebral cortex, spinal cord, and cerebellum. While diffusion MRI has been successfully applied to map various brain pathways, its application for the in vivo imaging of the brainstem pathways has been limited due to inadequate resolution and large susceptibility-induced distortion artifacts. With the release of high-resolution data from the Human Connectome Project (HCP), there is increasing interest in mapping human brainstem pathways. Previous works relying on HCP data to study brainstem pathways, however, did not consider the prevalence (>80%) of large distortions in the brainstem even after the application of correction procedures from the HCP-Pipeline. They were also limited in the lack of adequate consideration of subject variability in either fiber pathways or region of interests (ROIs) used for bundle reconstruction. To overcome these limitations, we develop in this work a probabilistic atlas of 23 major brainstem bundles using high-quality HCP data passing rigorous quality control. For the large-scale data from the 500-Subject release of HCP, we conducted extensive quality controls to exclude subjects with severe distortions in the brainstem area. After that, we developed a systematic protocol to manually delineate 1300 ROIs on 20 HCP subjects (10 males; 10 females) for the reconstruction of fiber bundles using tractography techniques. Finally, we leveraged our novel connectome modeling techniques including high order fiber orientation distribution (FOD) reconstruction from multi-shell diffusion imaging and topography-preserving tract filtering algorithms to successfully reconstruct the 23 fiber bundles for each subject, which were then used to calculate the probabilistic atlases in the MNI152 space for public release. In our experimental results, we demonstrate that our method yielded anatomically faithful reconstruction of the brainstem pathways and achieved improved performance in comparison with an existing atlas of cerebellar peduncles based on HCP data. These atlases have been publicly released on NITRIC (https://www.nitrc.org/projects/brainstem_atlas/) and can be readily used by brain imaging researchers interested in studying brainstem pathways.

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