Low frequency oscillating gradient spin-echo sequences improve sensitivity to axon diameter: An experimental study in viable nerve tissue

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Mapping axon diameters within the central and peripheral nervous system could play an important role in our understanding of nerve pathways, and help diagnose and monitor an array of neurological disorders. Numerous diffusion MRI methods have been proposed for imaging axon diameters, most of which use conventional single diffusion encoding (SDE) spin echo sequences. However, a growing number of studies show that oscillating gradient spin echo (OGSE) sequences can provide additional advantages over conventional SDE sequences. Recent theoretical results suggest that this is especially the case in realistic scenarios, such as when fibres have unknown or dispersed orientation. In the present study, we adopt the ActiveAx approach to experimentally investigate the extent of these advantages by comparing the performances of SDE and trapezoidal OGSE in viable nerve tissue. We optimise SDE and OGSE ActiveAx protocols for a rat peripheral nerve tissue and test their performance using Monte Carlo simulations and a 800 mT/m gradient strength pre-clinical imaging experiment. The imaging experiment uses excised sciatic nerve from a rat's leg placed in a MRI compatible viable isolated tissue (VIT) maintenance chamber, which keeps the tissue in a viable physiological state that preserves the structural complexity of the nerve and enables lengthy scan times. We compare model estimates to histology, which we perform on the nerve post scanning. Optimisation produces a three-shell SDE and OGSE ActiveAx protocol, with the OGSE protocol consisting of one SDE sequence and two low-frequency oscillating gradient waveform sequences. Both simulation and imaging results show that the OGSE ActiveAx estimates of the axon diameter index have a higher accuracy and a higher precision compared to those from SDE. Histology estimates of the axon diameter index in our nerve tissue samples are 4–5.8 μm and these are excellently matched with the OGSE estimates 4.2–6.5 μm, while SDE overestimates at 5.2–8 μm for the same sample. We found OGSE estimates to be more precise with on average a 0.5 μm standard deviation compared to the SDE estimates which have a 2 μm standard deviation. When testing the robustness of the estimates when the number of the diffusion gradient directions reduces, we found that both OGSE and SDE estimates are affected, however OGSE is more robust to these changes than the SDE. Overall, these results suggest, quantitatively and in in vivo conditions, that low-frequency OGSE sequences may provide improved accuracy of axon diameter mapping compared to standard SDE sequences.HighlightsPerformance of SDE and OGSE ActiveAx are compared for axon diameter imaging.A viable rat sciatic nerve and Monte Carlo simulations are used as samples.OGSE outperforms SDE in accuracy, precision and robustness of diameter estimates.Optimal OGSE has low frequency with results matching histology at 800 mT/m.

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