Contribution of systemic vascular effects to fMRI activity in white matter

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To investigate a potential contribution of systemic physiology to recently reported BOLD fMRI signals in white matter, we compared photo-plethysmography (PPG) and whole-brain fMRI signals recorded simultaneously during long resting-state scans from an overnight sleep study. We found that intermittent drops in the amplitude of the PPG signal exhibited strong and widespread correlations with the fMRI signal, both in white matter (WM) and in gray matter (GM). The WM signal pattern resembled that seen in previous resting-state fMRI studies and closely tracked the location of medullary veins. Its temporal cross-correlation with the PPG amplitude was bipolar, with an early negative value. In GM, the correlation was consistently positive. Consistent with previous studies comparing physiological signals with fMRI, these findings point to a systemic vascular contribution to WM fMRI signals. The PPG drops are interpreted as systemic vasoconstrictive events, possibly related to intermittent increases in sympathetic tone related to fluctuations in arousal state. The counter-intuitive polarity of the WM signal is explained by long blood transit times in the medullary vasculature of WM, which cause blood oxygenation loss and a substantial timing mismatch between blood volume and blood oxygenation effects. A similar mechanism may explain previous findings of negative WM signals around large draining veins during both task- and resting-state fMRI.

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