Diffusion Tensor Imaging and High Angular Resolution Diffusion Imaging

I attended an interesting lecture this week. The professor who spoke talked about Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) as well as about a newer technology they are trying to help develop – High Angular Resolution Diffusion Imaging (HARDI). DTI is based on tensor mathematics and physics. The tensor in DTI is basically a 3×3 matrix (x, y, and z planes) of numbers that represent the diffusion per voxel in the brain. A voxel is a volumetric pixel – a 3D portion of the brain in MR imaging. The highest resolution we can typically get with clinical MR scanners is a cubic mm voxel. So with DTI we have a tensor, a matrix, that describes the diffusion of water molecules within each voxel in the brain. Diffusion in a jar of water or in the ventricles of the brain tends to be fast and spherical. It is less spherical in the gray matter and even less so in the white matter. In fact, the diffusion of water is highly directional in white matter (the myelinated axons of neurons). This means that the water molecules tend to diffuse somewhat parallel to the length of the axon. The movements of these water molecules are picked up by the MR scanner (which is technically “focusing” on the hydrogen atoms in water).
The diffusion per voxel can be quantified by measures of fractional anisotropy (how directional is the movement), Mean Diffusivity (total diffusion within the voxel), and by the eigenvalues of the matrix (basically how far the molecules moved in the direction of the eigenvector).
Back to HARDI. HARDI improves upon DTI by allowing for more directions of the white matter fibers to be separated out than is possible with DTI. There are some areas of the brain where there are a lot of crossing fibers and these areas show up as dark spots on DTI (which looks like a hole in the brain). With HARDI, you can see that the fibers are just more complex than is possible to calculate with DTI.
Both of these methods are useful for measuring the overall integrity (and potentially connectivity) of the white matter in the brain.

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