Microstructural imaging of the human brain with a ‘super-scanner’: 10 key advantages of ultra-strong gradients for diffusion MRI

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Abstract

The key component of a microstructural diffusion MRI ‘super-scanner’ is a dedicated high-strength gradient system that enables stronger diffusion weightings per unit time compared to conventional gradient designs. This can, in turn, drastically shorten the time needed for diffusion encoding, increase the signal-to-noise ratio, and facilitate measurements at shorter diffusion times. This review, written from the perspective of the UK National Facility for In Vivo MR Imaging of Human Tissue Microstructure, an initiative to establish a shared 300 mT/m-gradient facility amongst the microstructural imaging community, describes ten advantages of ultra-strong gradients for microstructural imaging. Specifically, we will discuss how the increase of the accessible measurement space compared to a lower-gradient systems (in terms of Δ, b-value, and TE) can accelerate developments in the areas of 1) axon diameter distribution mapping; 2) microstructural parameter estimation; 3) mapping micro-vs macroscopic anisotropy features with gradient waveforms beyond a single pair of pulsed-gradients; 4) multi-contrast experiments, e.g. diffusion-relaxometry; 5) tractography and high-resolution imaging in vivo and 6) post mortem; 7) diffusion-weighted spectroscopy of metabolites other than water; 8) tumour characterisation; 9) functional diffusion MRI; and 10) quality enhancement of images acquired on lower-gradient systems. We finally discuss practical barriers in the use of ultra-strong gradients, and provide an outlook on the next generation of ‘super-scanners’.

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