Quantitative MRI provides markers of intra-, inter-regional, and age-related differences in young adult cortical microstructure

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Measuring the structural composition of the cortex is critical to understanding typical development, yet few investigations in humans have charted markers in vivo that are sensitive to tissue microstructural attributes. Here, we used a well-validated quantitative MR protocol to measure four parameters (R1, MT, R2*, PD*) that differ in their sensitivity to facets of the tissue microstructural environment (R1, MT: myelin, macromolecular content; R2*: myelin, paramagnetic ions, i.e., iron; PD*: free water content). Mapping these parameters across cortical regions in a young adult cohort (18–39 years, N = 93) revealed expected patterns of increased macromolecular content as well as reduced tissue water content in primary and primary adjacent cortical regions. Mapping across cortical depth within regions showed decreased expression of myelin and related processes – but increased tissue water content – when progressing from the grey/white to the grey/pial boundary, in all regions. Charting developmental change in cortical microstructure cross-sectionally, we found that parameters with sensitivity to tissue myelin (R1 & MT) showed linear increases with age across frontal and parietal cortex (change 0.5–1.0% per year). Overlap of robust age effects for both parameters emerged in left inferior frontal, right parietal and bilateral pre-central regions. Our findings afford an improved understanding of ontogeny in early adulthood and offer normative quantitative MR data for inter- and intra-cortical composition, which may be used as benchmarks in further studies.HighlightsWe mapped multi-parameter maps (MPMs) across and within cortical regions.We charted age effects (ages 18–39) on myelin and related processes.MPMs sensitive to myelin (R1, MT) showed elevated values in primary areas over most cortical depths.R2* map foci tended to overlap MPMs sensitive to myelin (R1, MT).R1 and MT increased with age (0.5–1.0% per year) at mid-depth in frontal and parietal cortex.

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