High-resolution magnetic resonance imaging reveals nuclei of the human amygdala: manual segmentation to automatic atlas

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Abstract

The amygdala is composed of multiple nuclei with unique functions and connections in the limbic system and to the rest of the brain. However, standard in vivo neuroimaging tools to automatically delineate the amygdala into its multiple nuclei are still rare. By scanning postmortem specimens at high resolution (100–150 μm) at 7 T field strength (n = 10), we were able to visualize and label nine amygdala nuclei (anterior amygdaloid, cortico-amygdaloid transition area; basal, lateral, accessory basal, central, cortical medial, paralaminar nuclei). We created an atlas from these labels using a recently developed atlas building algorithm based on Bayesian inference. This atlas, which will be released as part of FreeSurfer, can be used to automatically segment nine amygdala nuclei from a standard resolution structural MR image. We applied this atlas to two publicly available datasets (ADNI and ABIDE) with standard resolution T1 data, used individual volumetric data of the amygdala nuclei as the measure and found that our atlas i) discriminates between Alzheimer's disease participants and age-matched control participants with 84% accuracy (AUC=0.915), and ii) discriminates between individuals with autism and age-, sex- and IQ-matched neurotypically developed control participants with 59.5% accuracy (AUC=0.59). For both datasets, the new ex vivo atlas significantly outperformed (all p < .05) estimations of the whole amygdala derived from the segmentation in FreeSurfer 5.1 (ADNI: 75%, ABIDE: 54% accuracy), as well as classification based on whole amygdala volume (using the sum of all amygdala nuclei volumes; ADNI: 81%, ABIDE: 55% accuracy). This new atlas and the segmentation tools that utilize it will provide neuroimaging researchers with the ability to explore the function and connectivity of the human amygdala nuclei with unprecedented detail in healthy adults as well as those with neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders.

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